Plastic Poison

by Michael I. Niman

Remember when plastic used to break? You know, really break, as in shatter. Now it kind of bounces. The difference is that much of our modern plastic is vitamin-fortified with additives called phthalates. Phthalates protect plastic by making it more malleable, but a growing number of scientific studies suggest that while protecting plastic, certain phthalates are poisoning people. More specifically, they are carcinogens, they’re potentially toxic to our livers and kidneys, and juvenile exposure in males may lower lifelong testosterone levels, physiologically feminizing men while lowering their sperm counts. But hey, that’s some fine plastic we’ve got there.

Toxic phthalates are all over our environment. They’re omnipresent in vinyl and in cosmetic products such as nail polish, antiperspirant, hair spray and perfume, where they help scents adhere to skin. They leach from shower curtains, plastic furniture and automotive interiors into the air we breathe.

One place where phthalates are particularly problematic is in children’s toys. This is because studies suggest that early exposure, in particular, is detrimental to developing bodies—and that infants and children have limited abilities to pass toxins from their systems. In response to a growing body of data suggesting that plastic children’s toys were poisoning children, the European Union instituted an emergency ban in 1999, prohibiting the use of the most dangerous phthalates in children’s toys and in items such as pacifiers that are put in children’s mouths. Since then a host of other countries that hold children’s health above corporate profits instituted bans of their own. They include Mexico, Argentina, Canada, Japan and almost a dozen others.

The result of these bans has been the creation of two parallel toy markets. Chinese factories, where most of the world’s toys originate now, manufacture toys with toxic phthalates for markets in the US and other chemical industry-friendly countries, and phthalate-free toys made with non-toxic phthalate alternatives for markets in Europe, Mexico and the handful of other kid-friendly countries. Ya gotta love the Chinese.

Following suit, the German-based multinational chemical giant BASF shut down production of toxic phthalates in Europe, but continues to make them here in the US. I know that, like the Chinese toy manufacturers, BASF is not part of any conspiracy to rid the US of testosterone. They’re just supplying materials to a hungry market—like they did when they were part of I.G. Farben, supplying Zyklon-B death gas for use at Auschwitz.

Phthalates are not without friends. Even though there are now viable alternatives for most industrial applications of phthalates, they are still often the cheapest chemicals to get the job done. This is where the divergent ideologies of the US and the EU become painfully evident. Federal regulatory agencies here, while admitting that phthalates are poison, argue that toxicity is tied to exposure. Their argument goes on to explain that there is no hard and fast evidence proving beyond a doubt that children are getting a toxic level of exposure—unless perhaps if they teethe more than the regulators think they should. The bottom line is that in the US the bottom line is the bottom line. Here we weigh the actual dollar cost of the health consequences to individual victims against the potentially lost corporate profits involved with making products healthier. It’s the same logic Ford used when they decided in the 1970s that it was more cost-effective to pay out claims on their poorly designed, exploding cars than it was to recall them. It’s also why Toyota now sells more cars in this country than Ford.

Let’s face it, in the Bush family’s America, our bodies are toxic dumps for the chemical industry. That’s why deadly phthalates now show up in most of our blood samples.

The fight to make products safe in the US is playing out, however, on the local level. As is often the case, the first ban on toxic phthalates was instituted by the city of San Francisco. Two months ago the state of California followed suit. The state’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed the ban into law, protecting the hormone he so loves while saving California from a generation of the “girly men” he so loathes.

Christmas shoppers trying to steer clear of phthalate-laced toys should avoid plastic—particularly PVC. There’s a whole host of other environmental and social justice reasons why this is a good idea, as well. If you can’t avoid plastics, your safest bet is to stick with brand name toys. That’s because many large companies are adhering to the EU ban—for them it’s more cost-effective to make just one line of toys rather than have to sort the safe products from the toxic ones at Chinese factories that aren’t known for their quality control. That’s the official reason, at least. I can’t help but think that their public relations departments advised them to avoid the PR nightmare that would follow revelations about how toy companies were making special toxic runs of toys for their US customers. Then there are the prospects of lawsuits, as well, when androgynous former boys age up into a new class-action generation.

These are issues that disposable corporations supplying dollar stores don’t have to think about. Their brand of capitalism plans for no future beyond next week. The sad reality is that, like in so many aspects of everyday life, it’s the poor who will suffer the most as their children suck on their soft, pliable, indestructible, dollar-store pacifiers. On the positive side, given the violence American males have shown a proclivity to, perhaps a generation of girly men isn’t such a bad idea.


Dr. Michael I. Niman thinks we should all read up on gender theory as it might come in useful.

ęCopyright 2008

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