Chemical companies have helped Americans attain the highest standard of living in history. But one would never know it from the industry. The least credible accusation against its products can send manufacturers into panicked retreat. That's a fact that anti-chemical activists have learned all too well and exploit unmercifully, to the great detriment of consumers who might otherwise have benefited from these products.
Now comes an attack on, of all things, plastic IV bags used widely, and safely, to store blood and other life-saving products. An activist group called Health Care Without Harm recently announced a campaign seeking to eliminate plastic IV bags because, it says, the bags leach small amounts of a chemical called di-2-ethylhexylphthalate or DEHP.
What's the big deal about DEHP? Genetically weakened laboratory animals given near-lethal doses of DEHP have developed higher rates of liver tumors, more kidney damage and reduced fertility. But none of this is any real surprise. What would you expect from laboratory experiments that amount to little more than controlled poisoning?
What's on the other side of the science ledger? Plastic IV bags have been used for 40 years with no real-world evidence they have caused any harm - the same story as for a myriad of other chemical-containing products that have undergone similar, groundless attacks.
What does Health Care Without Harm want? It says cost-effective alternatives. But one doesn't have to look to hard to see what's really driving this issue. Like its sponsor, Greenpeace, Health Care Without Harm really wants a world without man-made chemicals. That includes the health-care industry.
Several years ago, Greenpeace declared war on products made with chlorine compounds, especially polyvinyl chloride. Greenpeace was having little success until last year when it focused on toys made from softened polyvinyl chloride, like rubber bath duckies and teething rings.
Terrorized with headlines to the effect that a chemical called phthalates leaching from rubber duckies could cause sex changes in children, European Union nations hastily announced last summer a ban on toys made from softened polyvinyl chloride. They weren't alone for long.
In the fall, U.S. toy makers announced they would stop making toys with polyvinyl chloride softened with phthalates. Ironically, in December, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that the toys were safe because children would not be able to consume enough of the chemicals to be harmed. But this was too little, too late. The Greenpeace campaign succeeded.
Plastic IV bags - and even plastic food wrap - are the next objectives in Greenpeace's war against chlorine. Industry certainly has enough ingenuity to reformulate IV bags, food wrap and toys. One might ask, if that's the case, isn't it better to exercise the precautionary principle - better safe than sorry? But the better question is safe from what?
The precautionary principle works well in certain situations, seat belts, for example. Riding in a car carries with it the very real risk of getting into an accident, regardless of fault. Wearing a seat belt may reduce your risk of injury in the very real, if remote, possibility of an accident. But this same rationale does not hold true for chemicals.
People have been exposed since birth to innumerable chemicals and mixtures of chemicals in air, food and water. With the exception of high exposure - essentially cases of poisoning - science has yet to show these everyday exposures are causing any harm whatsoever. So health risks from low-level or environmental exposures to chemicals remain hypothetical in nature.
If the precautionary principle were applied routinely to hypothetical risks, what would people allow themselves to do? Probably not very much.
If there is no risk of harm, why do manufacturers give in to hysteria and reformulate, or even stop manufacturing products? Its skin is too thin. Gone are the days when the Monsanto Company actually parodied "Silent Spring," Rachel Carson's baseless 1962 diatribe against pesticides.
The chemical industry has a valid and compelling case to make on behalf of its products. It should defend them aggressively, if not for its own sake then for the consumers whose lives depend on them.
Steven Milloy is publisher of the Junk Science Home Page and co-author of Silencing Science (Cato Institute, 1999).
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