[permaculture] Our 'Toxic' Love-Hate Relationship With Plastics /Fresh Air NPR/NEW book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Fri Apr 22 01:13:42 EDT 2011


hi
   here is a great story of plastic, the dangers 
and toxic effects of plastics but the ways in 
which they have enriched the lives of a lot of 
Americans. A waste product from the refining of 
oil  that during the second world war was used to 
replace valuable resources and suddenly plastic 
entered the market, the rest is history   The 
transcript of interview is included
wes

Fresh Air NPR/
NEW Book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

April 19, 2011
http://www.npr.org/2011/04/19/135245835/our-toxic-love-hate-relationship-with-plastics

We all know that plastics are common in modern 
life, but science journalist Susan Freinkel says 
they are really literally everywhere - in our 
toothbrushes, hair dryers, cell phones, 
computers, door knobs, car parts - and of course 
in those ubiquitous plastic bags we get it seems 
every time we buy anything.

The bags are made from polyethylene, the most 
common type of plastic in use today. By one 
estimate, Freinkel says, the amount of 
polyethylene produced in America every year is 
nearly equal to the combined mass of every man, 
woman and child in the country.

Freinkel's new book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story 
chronicles the rise of plastic in consumer 
culture, and its effects on the environment and 
our health. She notes that plastics have had 
enormously beneficial impacts - like making blood 
transfusions safe and common. But scientists are 
now also finding that phthalate chemicals from IV 
bags and other plastics are leaching into the 
fluids we take into our bodies, and the effects 
of that are just now being understood.


Plastic: A Toxic Love Story
By Susan Freinkel
Hardcover, 336 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List price: $27
Read An Excerpt

"These chemicals act in a more convoluted and 
complicated way," Freinkel says. "They interfere 
with our hormones, and they interfere with the 
endocrine system, which is the network of glands 
that orchestrate growth and development. And 
there's some research showing that DEHP, this 
chemical that's in vinyl [used in IV bags], has 
this property. It interferes with testosterone."

But the million dollar question yet to be solved, 
says Freinkel, is whether prolonged exposure to 
DEHP and other chemicals alters our bodily 
systems.

"It's difficult to say what the effects [of 
exposure] are," she says. "There are animal 
studies that show, at very high doses, it can be 
quite hazardous. It is literally toxic to the 
testicles and can create malformations and damage 
sperm and create fertility problems later in 
life. But most people aren't exposed to those 
kinds of levels - even in hospital settings where 
you are being transfused for a long time. It's 
not approaching those levels. It is more subtle, 
probably."

Problems In Rats

Only a few studies have directly looked at the 
effects of DEHP exposure in humans. Dr. Shanna 
Swan at the University of Rochester in Rochester, 
N.Y., has published several articles on prenatal 
exposure to phthalates. In one study, she found 
that newborn baby boys born to mothers with more 
phthalates in their bodies had a subtle 
difference in their genitals. That genital 
abnormality could indicate a disruption in 
testosterone levels, Freinkel says.

"In rats, that [physical] marker has been 
associated with a bunch of problems," Freinkel 
says. "But we don't actually know what it means 
in humans. ... What it suggests is that these 
chemicals that we've used for 50 years and 
assumed to be completely benign may have an 
impact on health of some people, particularly 
people who get exposed at critical phases of 
development."



Susan Freinkel is a science writer whose work has 
appeared in The New York Times, Discover 
Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine and other 
publications. She is also the author of American 
Chestnut, a social history of one of America's 
most common trees.
What The Plastics Industry Says

The plastics industry, Freinkel says, has 
maintained that vinyl and phthalates are safe. 
Both the vinyl industry and the American 
Chemistry Council conduct their own research on 
the materials they use and have their own trade 
associations. Freinkel says they're quick to 
rebut any studies that come out suggesting a 
correlation between exposure to synthetic 
chemicals and possible health issues.

"[They say] they've been in use for 50 years, 
there's no evidence of widespread human problems, 
and therefore [they ask], 'What's the issue?' " 
she says. "And they are right - the science on 
this is still uncertain."

Interview Highlights

On government regulation of plastics

"Unlike pesticides or drugs, there's no real 
explicit government regulation on plastics. We 
have a very fragmented and fairly ineffective 
patchwork of laws to regulate synthetic 
chemicals. The central regulation there is 
something called the Toxic Substances Control 
Act, which was passed in 1976. People's criticism 
of that law is that it has tended to treat 
chemicals as safe until proven to be dangerous. 
But the way that the law is written is very 
difficult to establish that a chemical is 
dangerous because manufacturers do not have to 
volunteer information about that, and the 
Environmental Protection Agency is fairly 
hamstrung in its ability to collect information. 
When that law was passed, the 60,000 or so 
chemicals that were then in commerce were simply 
grandfathered in under the law. Since that time, 
there have been another 20,000 to 30,000 
chemicals that have come onto the market. The EPA 
has only been able to require reviews of a couple 
of hundred [types of synthetic chemicals], and 
it's only been able to actually establish that 
there were significant hazards that [required] 
banning in five."



"There are a lot of plastics out there. Plastics 
are not created equal, and I think there are a 
lot of plastics that we don't have to worry 
about. I'm not so worried about polyethylene [the 
stuff of plastic baggies]. I'm not particularly 
worried about polypropylene, which is the stuff 
that's used in yogurt containers or margarine 
tubs. But we know that hazardous chemicals are 
used in plastics, and some of those plastics will 
leach chemicals that may be harmful to our 
health, and we don't know the full extent of 
that. I'll give you an example, which is PET - 
polyethylene terephthalate. It's the plastic 
that's used in soda bottles and water bottles. 
It's another plastic that we have for decades 
considered an inert plastic. In recent years, 
there have been several studies showing that PET 
can leach some kind of compound that seems to 
have estrogenic activity - that seems to act like 
an estrogen. We don't know what that compound is. 
We don't know whether it's being leached in 
sufficient quantities to have any impact on human 
health. The fact that we're suddenly discovering 
it is a little disconcerting. That said, I think 
those kinds of findings are why we need to have 
stronger laws that require manufacturers to 
demonstrate the safety of chemicals that they put 
into commerce."

On plastics leaching from baby bottles

"The plastic that used to be used to make baby 
bottles is a polycarbonate. It's a hard, clear, 
glasslike plastic, and one of the main 
ingredients in that is a chemical called 
bisphenol A (BPA), which is an estrogen mimic. If 
you look at a diagram of that molecule, it looks 
just like an estrogen molecule. And bisphenol A 
has been associated with a bunch of health 
problems, including obesity, breast cancer, heart 
disease and others. And when research about 
bisphenol A started coming out, parents 
especially were understandably horrified at the 
thought that the bottles that they were using to 
feed their babies could potentially be leaching 
this chemical into their babies. You'd be 
hard-pressed to buy a baby bottle now that 
contains bisphenol A. This is one of those 
instances where the government didn't step in but 
Walmart did. The big-box stores won't carry BPA 
bottles. ... Manufacturers are still free to use 
bisphenol A, but it has acquired such a bad rep 
that not many do. There are some states and other 
countries that have outlawed bisphenol A. The 
problem, of course, is that you end up with this 
patchwork of regulations and no consistency or 
guarantee."

Excerpt: 'Plastic: A Toxic Love Story'
by SUSAN FREINKEL


Trawling the site on various occasions, I've seen 
dozens of combs made of the early plastic called 
celluloid - combs so beautiful they belonged in a 
museum, so beguiling I coveted them for my own. 
I've seen combs that looked as if they were 
carved from ivory or amber, and some that were 
flecked with mica so they shone as if made of 
hammered gold. I've seen huge, lacy decorative 
combs of faux tortoiseshell that might have 
crowned the piled-high up-twist of a Gilded Age 
debu°©tante, and tiara-like combs twinkling with 
sapphire or emerald or jet "brilliants," as 
rhinestones once were called. One of my favorites 
was a delicate 1925 art deco comb with a curved 
handle and its own carry ing case; together, they 
looked like an elegant purse made of tortoise 
shell and secured with a rhinestone clasp. Just 
four inches long, it was surely designed for the 
short hair of a Jazz Age beauty. Looking at the 
comb, I could imagine its first owner, a bright 
spirit in a dropped-waist dress and Louise Brooks 
bob, reveling in her liberation from corsets, 
long gowns, and heavy hair buns.

Surprisingly, these gorgeous antiques are quite 
affordable. Cellu loid plastic made it possible, 
for the first time, to produce combs in real 
abundance - keeping prices low even for today's 
collector who doesn't have a lot to spend but 
wants to own something fabulous. For people at 
the dawn of the plastic age, celluloid offered 
what one writer called "a forgery of many of the 
necessities and luxuries of civilized life," a 
foretoken of the new material culture's aesthetic 
and abundance.

Combs are one of our oldest tools, used by humans 
across cultures and ages for decoration, 
detangling, and delousing. They derive from the 
most fundamental human tool of all - the hand. 
And from the time that humans began using combs 
instead of their fingers, comb design has 
scarcely changed, prompting the satirical paper 
the Onion to publish a piece titled "Comb 
Technology: Why Is It So Far Behind the Razor and 
Toothbrush Fields?" The Stone Age craftsman who 
made the oldest known comb - a small four-toothed 
number carved from animal bone some eight 
thousand years ago - would have no trouble 
knowing what to do with the bright blue plastic 
version sit ting on my bathroom counter.

For most of history, combs were made of almost 
any material hu mans had at hand, including bone, 
tortoiseshell, ivory, rubber, iron, tin, gold, 
silver, lead, reeds, wood, glass, porcelain, 
papier-mâché. But in the late nineteenth century, 
that panoply of possibilities began to fall away 
with the arrival of a totally new kind of 
material - celluloid, the first man-made plastic. 
Combs were among the first and most popular 
objects made of celluloid. And having crossed 
that material Rubicon, comb makers never went 
back. Ever since, combs generally have been made 
of one kind of plastic or another.

The story of the humble comb's makeover is part 
of the much larger story of how we ourselves have 
been transformed by plastics. Plastics freed us 
from the confines of the natural world, from the 
material constraints and limited supplies that 
had long bounded hu man activity. That new 
elasticity unfixed social boundaries as well. The 
arrival of these malleable and versatile 
materials gave producers the ability to create a 
treasure trove of new products while expand ing 
opportunities for people of modest means to 
become consumers.

Reprinted with permission from Plastic: A Toxic 
Love Story, by Susan Freinkel, published by 
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright 2011 Susan 
Freinkel. All rights reserved.

TRANSCRIPT

Heard on Fresh Air from WHYY
April 19, 2011 - TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We all know that plastics are common in modern 
life, but our guest, Susan Freinkel, says they're 
really everywhere: in our toothbrushes, 
hairdryers, cell phones, computers, door knobs, 
car parts and, of course, in those ubiquitous 
plastic bags we get just about every time we buy 
anything.
They're made from polyethylene, the most common 
type of plastic in use today. By one estimate, 
the amount of polyethylene produced in America 
every year is nearly equal to the combined mass 
of every man, woman and child in the country.

Freinkel's new book, "Plastic: A Toxic Love 
Story," chronicles the rise of plastics in 
consumer culture and its effects on the 
environment and our health. For example, she 
notes that plastics have had enormously 
beneficial effects, like making blood 
transfusions safe and common, but scientists are 
also finding that chemicals from blood and IV 
bags are leaching into the fluids we take into 
our bodies.
Susan Freinkel is a science writer whose work has 
appeared in the New York Times, Discover, 
Smithsonian and other publications. She spoke 
with FRESH AIR contributor

Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Well, Susan Freinkel, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's 
begin with a little experiment that you describe 
at the beginning of your book. You were going to 
spend a day without touching plastic. What 
happened?

Ms. SUSAN FREINKEL (Author, "Plastic: A Toxic 
Love Story"): Right. I didn't think through the 
idea very hard, which is why I walked into the 
bathroom that morning and looked down, and there 
is my plastic toilet seat. So I had to change my 
plan, and instead of spending the day not 
touching anything plastic, I decided I would 
spend the day writing down everything I touched 
that was plastic.
And by the end of the day, my notebook was filled 
with pages and pages of plastic things - things 
that I went into the experiment knowing were 
plastic, you know, like the sandwich bags, but 
then things I never imagined were plastic like 
the doorknob of my front door, which I thought 
was brass but when I looked closely I realized 
was plastic.
I didn't really understand how my life had become 
so permeated by plastic, and I realized I didn't 
know the first thing about this stuff. I didn't 
know what plastic was, where it came from or 
whether there were reasons to be concerned about 
it. And I figured if I was asking those 
questions, probably other people were, too.

DAVIES: Give us a layman's understanding of what plastic is, chemically.
Ms. FREINKEL: Well, you know, we talk about 
plastic like it's one thing, but plastic is 
really - plastics are a huge family of materials. 
There are thousands of different plastics. And in 
many ways, they're as different from one another 
as paper can be from glass.
So in plastic, I call them daisy chains. They're 
giant molecules that are hooked together like 
daisy chains. And another way to imagine them is 
like a string of beads. And how those beads are 
arranged, what the beads actually are, how 
they're strung on that string, how the strings 
are arranged with one another can affect what a 
plastic looks like, how it behaves, how it feels.
What these all have in common, though, is that 
they're polymers. They're these gigantic 
molecules, these long daisy chains. And as I 
said, you can get them having very different 
properties.
So take for instance something like nylon. You 
know, nylon can be stretchy like in pantyhose. It 
can be silky like a parachute. It can be bristly 
like the end of your toothbrush. Or it can be a 
solid, smooth material like the wheels of a 
roller skate, or bushy like Velcro.
You know, plastic has this kind of pejorative 
connotation, but it's pretty amazing that we've 
managed to make this family of materials that has 
so many different properties and that we can 
engineer, kind of, to do and be exactly what we 
want them to be.

DAVIES: Now, why was the development of plastics 
driven, in part, by the oil industry?
Ms. FREINKEL: Well, plastics come from the 
byproducts that are produced in the refining of 
oil or the processing of natural gas. Actually, 
in this country, most plastics come from natural 
gas.
And those processes throw off these byproducts 
which, you know, could just be wasted. But 
really, since the early 20th century, the 
petroleum and chemical industries got very good 
at taking these byproducts and reprocessing them, 
in a sense, to create new products like raw 
plastics.

DAVIES: Can you give us an example of a byproduct 
of, you know, of oil refining that led to a 
plastic?

Ms. FREINKEL: Sure. You know, I'll give you the 
example of ethylene, which is a byproduct of oil 
refining. There is a sort of legend that Nelson 
Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, was looking 
out over his, you know, vast refinery complex and 
saw flares burning off some gas.
And he said, you know: What is that? What is that 
that we're burning off? And somebody said: Well, 
that's ethane. And he said: ethane - which is a 
precursor to ethylene - well, I don't want to 
waste that. I don't want to waste anything. And, 
you know, the - well, let's figure out something 
to do with it. And that something turned out to 
be ethylene, which is now used to make 
polyethylene.

DAVIES: And so what did they do? You have a gas 
that's being vented from the stack of a refinery. 
Is it captured and then cooled so that it becomes 
a liquid, and then, what, turned into a plastic 
resin or something?
Ms. FREINKEL: Well, that makes it sounds like a 
really simple process. And, you know, when I went 
to go visit Dow Chemical's polyethylene plant in 
Freeport, Texas, that very simple process that 
you just described takes place over miles and 
miles of pipes, stretching out over acres.
And basically what happens is the ethylene is 
piped in a series of pipes and subjected to 
different ranges of pressures and temperatures, 
and different other gases are fed in with it. And 
eventually they all go into this thing called the 
reactor, which I had envisioned was going to be 
like some lab with, you know, bubbling flasks and 
vats, but actually was this huge, two-story room 
with these gigantic pipes - looping up and down, 
floor to ceiling.
And at the start of that room, where the gases 
first go in, they go in at the start of the room, 
and then other chemicals are fed in to trigger a 
chemical reaction that will cause the gases to 
hook together into these daisy chains and become 
liquid. And out the other end comes polyethylene.
I couldn't see any of that, but I was walking 
along the outside of the reactor chamber, and all 
of a sudden, I realized I smelled plastic. It was 
like sticking my nose in the - you know, in an 
empty bottle of milk, or jug of milk.
And then I looked around on the floor, and 
suddenly I could see these little clumps of this 
waxy, white stuff that was raw polyethylene.

DAVIES: So just to simplify to the beginning and 
the end, this gas that's being thrown off by a 
refinery is turned into what? What is it used for?
Ms. FREINKEL: The gas is turned into, 
essentially, liquid plastic that then is extruded 
into tiny little pellets that look like rice 
grains. And those are sort of the raw material 
from which plastic products are made.

DAVIES: And which plastic products come from - is it polyethylene?
Ms. FREINKEL: In this case I was looking at 
polyethylene, but this is more or less the 
process for all kinds of plastics. They start 
with gases, chemical reactions that take place 
that turn them into these polymers, these giant 
molecules that are liquid, and what comes out are 
pellets or powders that are sent out from Dow and 
other companies that make - they call them 
resins, raw plastics. And those are shipped out 
to, you know, manufacturers and processors around 
the world, really, who then turn them into 
plastic stuff.

DAVIES: You say the dawn of the age of plastics was 1941. Why?
Ms. FREINKEL: What happened in 1941 is that the 
guy who was in charge of provisioning the U.S. 
military at the outset of World War II started 
requisitioning plastic to replace strategic 
metals that were really needed.
And that led to a huge ramping-up of plastics 
production. A lot of plastics had been discovered 
and invented in the '20s and '30s but hadn't 
really made their way into major production. And 
it was kind of the military needs of the war that 
got those plastics going strong.
DAVIES: And what military supplies were they used to make?

Ms. FREINKEL: Oh, a wide range, I mean, from, you 
know, the basic, standard-issue combs that GIs 
got, which up until that time had been made from 
rubber, to, you know, mortar fuses to the acrylic 
turrets that were used on planes for gunners. 
They were throughout the military - plastic 
bugles.

DAVIES: And then after the war, you had this more 
developed plastics industry, and it, what, it 
needed a market, right?

Ms. FREINKEL: Exactly. You know, imagine all of 
these manufacturers with these huge, built-up 
supplies of plastic and huge capacity, and they 
needed to do something with it.

DAVIES: Now one of the things that I like about 
your book is that it isn't just about, you know, 
the dangers and toxic effects of plastics but the 
ways in which they have enriched the lives of a 
lot of Americans. Describe ways in which plastics 
in effect democratized - had a democratizing 
impact on American life.

Ms. FREINKEL: Well, that was something that 
started really early on with plastics. And I tell 
this story of the comb as an example of that. 
Now, combs in the mid-19th century were often 
made from things like tortoiseshell or ivory. But 
by the mid-19th century, people were beginning to 
get worried that both ivory and tortoiseshell 
were becoming in short supply because the animals 
were being sort of hunted into extinction.
And that actually was a goad to the development 
of early plastics. One of the big uses of ivory 
was for billiard balls, and a billiard-ball 
manufacturer in the 1860s put an ad offering 
$10,000 for anybody who could come up with a 
viable substitute for ivory.
That ad caught the eye of an inventor in New York 
named John Wesley Hyatt, who was kind of an 
amateur inventor, and he started looking at ways 
to develop an adequate substitute. And what he 
actually ended up coming up with was the early 
plastic celluloid, which was made from cellulose 
- actually from cotton.
And one of the first uses - or common uses - for 
celluloid was combs because you could take 
celluloid and make it look like any kind of 
valuable material. It was really good - it was 
very easy to make it look like tortoiseshell or 
to make it look like ivory, and indeed that was 
what was done.
And so you had sort of these exquisite combs that 
looked like they'd come, you know, from 
tortoiseshell or ivory, it looked like they cost 
a fortune, but actually, you know, you could get 
them for quite cheap, and anybody could have one.

DAVIES: And then, you know, once plastics became 
much more ubiquitous, you had consumers that 
suddenly, now, they could get cheap combs. They 
could get a cheap toothbrush. They could buy a 
suitcase that was light and strong. They could 
have clear packaging that could wrap food and 
allow them to see whether or not it was fresh. 
There was fishing line - all this stuff. How did 
we feel about plastic? Did we embrace this 
artificial stuff, or were we suspicious of it at 
first?

Ms. FREINKEL: In the early days, people were 
enthralled. I mean, imagine something like 
cellophane, this clear material. People loved 
cellophane so much that in the '40s, it was - the 
word itself was considered the 
third-most-beautiful in the English language, 
after mother and memory.
I think, you know, people continued to love it 
until they started seeing it being increasingly 
used for schlocky kinds of things, you know, like 
lawn flamingos.
There was a fiasco in the early '60s when DuPont 
tried to develop a synthetic leather, Corfam, 
and, you know, touted it as good as leather, but, 
you know, it really didn't work very well.
And so, you know, by the time I was coming, 
growing up in the '70s, plastic had pretty much 
become a cultural joke. It was the punch line to 
the movie "The Graduate."
You know, when I was writing this book, almost 
every single person who I told I was working on a 
book about plastic invariably mentioned that 
line. You know, 40 years later, it still 
resonates.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Susan Freinkel. Her 
new book is called "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story." 
We'll talk more after a short break. This is 
FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is 
writer Susan Freinkel. She's written a new book 
about the ubiquitous presence of plastics in our 
lives and some of the effects thereof. It's 
called "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story."
You take us through some commonly manufactured 
plastic items like the single-form chair, of 
which there are probably billions made and sold 
cheaply. The Frisbee is another one you write 
about.
But I wanted to talk about some of the uses in 
medicine. And it was interesting that it had a 
powerful effect on modern medicine, right? I 
mean, it really allowed scientists to do things 
that they couldn't do before.

Ms. FREINKEL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, plastic, 
you couldn't have modern medicine without 
plastic, you know, going back to the in the '40s, 
when Willem Kolff invented the first kidney 
dialysis machine, using cellophane, in fact, and 
said: What God didn't grow, man can make.
I was reminded of that recently when my mother 
broke her hip, and I was looking at the hospital 
and looking all around at all the plastics in her 
room from, you know, the machinery monitoring her 
oxygen levels to the actual replacement hip in 
her body.

DAVIES: Explain the effect of plastic on the 
ability to transfuse blood and store blood.

Ms. FREINKEL: Okay, I tell the story of the blood 
bag, and I chose that object because it's made 
out of vinyl, and it was something that I think 
perfectly kind of illustrates the benefits and 
problems of plastic in medicine.
Blood, up until the '50s, really, to the extent 
that blood collection took place, it was in glass 
bottles. If you went to get blood drawn, up until 
the 1950s, you know, they would use a steel 
needle, and the blood would be taken out through 
that needle, through rubber tubing, into a glass 
bottle with a rubber stopper.
It didn't work very well. The blood cells were 
damaged in the process. And of course, those 
glass bottles were breakable. It wasn't a great 
system.
And in the 1950s, a Boston surgeon named Carl 
Walter started looking for a better way. And he 
came up with the idea of using one of the new 
plastics that was out, vinyl, as a way to collect 
and store blood. And he invented the vinyl blood 
bag.
And, in fact, you know, to prove its advantages 
to colleagues, he took it with him to a meeting 
filled with blood and stepped on it to show them, 
you know, this is really unbreakable.
And it was a huge technical advantage. You know, 
you had bottles not only that wouldn't break, but 
they made it possible to store blood more safely, 
to collect it more safely and to separate out the 
components in a sort of sterile, secure fashion 
so that a single unit of blood could go - instead 
of just going to one patient could go to three. 
So it was a great, great development.

DAVIES: And the final tubing that was used for 
IVs and all kinds of other procedures, that was 
better than rubber?

Ms. FREINKEL: That was better than rubber, and it 
was seen at the time as not only, you know - it 
was considered better than rubber, and it was 
considered inert. People assumed that this was 
stuff that wasn't going to cause any problem to 
human health.

DAVIES: Now, what are some of the issues that 
have arisen with the use of vinyl blood bags and 
IV tubes?

Ms. FREINKEL: Well, vinyl, the plastic vinyl, is 
made from a plastic called PVC. And on its own, 
PVC is a pretty rigid and brittle plastic. The 
way that you make it into something soft and 
pliable that you can use for, say, a blood bag or 
an IV bag is by adding in sort of oily chemicals 
called phthalates and, in particular, one called 
DEHP.
The problem is that DEHP doesn't really bond with 
the plastic. And it's -remember I compared 
earlier a polymer to a long strand, well, imagine 
those long strands, and then the DEHP is like 
little snips of spaghetti, say. It comes out 
really easily, and it leaches out easily. It 
leaches into the blood that's contained in the 
blood bag. It particularly will leach out if 
there's a fatty liquid present.
But we've known since the early '70s that DEHP 
leaches out of vinyl, and the way that we know is 
that there were a pair of scientists at that time 
who were doing some experiments with rat livers. 
It doesn't really matter what they were trying to 
do.
But they kept finding this weird, strange 
compound that was fouling up their experiments, 
and when they set out to figure out what it was, 
they discovered it was DEHP. And they were very 
surprised because everybody had assumed that this 
is, you know, an inert material.
They then did a bunch of research, and, you know, 
they came to the conclusion that this was not 
harmful, that this was fine for human health 
except under some very, very particular and rare 
circumstances.
Fast-forward about 20 year, in the late '90s, our 
understanding about sort of toxicology has 
changed, and a couple of things had happened. One 
is that there was sort of a new science 
discovering that some chemicals don't work like 
traditional toxins.
They - instead of sort of there being kind of a 
straight line of exposure to something like, you 
know, birth defects or cancer, these chemicals 
act in a sort of more convoluted and complicated 
way.
They interfere with our hormones, and they 
interfere with the endocrine system, which is the 
network of glands that orchestrate growth and 
development. And there's some research done 
showing that DEHP, this chemical that's in vinyl, 
has this property. It interferes with 
testosterone.
Most people aren't exposed to those kinds of 
levels, even in hospital settings where you are, 
you know, being transfused for a long time, or a 
little baby is being transfused for a long time. 
It's not approaching those levels. It is more 
subtle, probably. But we don't
know what the safe level is.

DAVIES: All right, so then these materials that 
we've been using, you know, everywhere for blood 
bags and for IV solutions and for tubes, there 
might be some concerns about them. Are there 
alternatives that people are exploring?

Ms. FREINKEL: There are alternatives. There's 
kind of - actually, it's a huge and growing area. 
And that's the irony and frustrating thing to me, 
to be honest.
Vinyl, polyvinyl chloride, there are alternatives 
for that in medicine, and there are actually 
companies who are using them. B. Braun, for 
instance, went into the market with the 
deliberate mission of finding alternative 
materials. So they make IV bags and tubes out of 
things like polyethylene and polypropylene or 
silicon tubes.
The problem is these are more expensive, and so 
for cash-strapped hospitals, you can understand 
why they may be reluctant to go with an 
alternative when they don't even completely know 
whether it's okay.

GROSS: Susan Freinkel's interview with FRESH AIR 
contributor Dave Davies will continue in the 
second half of the show. Her new book is called 
"Plastic: A Toxic Love Story." I'm Terry Gross, 
and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR 
contributor Dave Davies recorded with science 
writer Susan Freinkel about her new book 
"Plastic: A Toxic Love Story." It's about how 
dependent we've become on plastic - it's in 
nearly everything - and the hazards some plastics 
pose to the environment and the human body.
When we left off, Freinkel was talking about the 
vinyl bags and tubes used for blood transfusions 
in IV medicines, which scientists discovered are 
actually leaching chemicals into those fluids.

DAVIES: Well, what's been the reaction of the 
chemical industry to these critiques of vinyl 
bags and tubes?

Ms. FREINKEL: You know, the chemical industry 
basically maintains that this stuff is safe, that 
the argument about phthalates, for instance, is 
they've been in use for 50 years; there's no 
evidence of widespread human problems and 
therefore, what's the issue? And, you know, the 
vinyl industry has its own trade association, 
which rebuts studies. The American Chemistry 
Council is very quick to rebut any negative 
studies that come out. And, you know, they are 
right. The science on this is still uncertain. It 
is still evolving. We are looking at a whole new 
world of risks.
But, you know, I talked to one researcher who 
pointed out that, you know, there are 
similarities between the way the chemical 
industry responds to a lot of the studies that 
are suggesting problems and the way the tobacco 
industry defended tobacco for 50 years. You know, 
it's hard to make a slam dunk showing that these 
things are dangerous. You make that case through 
epidemiological studies and through animal 
studies and, you know, you very carefully piece 
it together.
Any time you get an epidemiological study 
suggesting a correlation between exposure to a 
phthalate or bisphenol A, for instance, and a 
health outcome, the chemical industry quickly 
points out that this is just a correlation. 
There's no evidence of direct cause-and-effect. 
That's true. That's what epidemiological studies 
do, but they are the gold standard for 
determining public health hazards. And this was 
the same strategy that was used by the tobacco 
companies when they were trying to fight growing 
evidence that tobacco causes lung cancer. It's 
been called a strategy of selling doubt.

DAVIES: What's the state of government regulation 
of plastics and their potential health effects?

Ms. FREINKEL: Unlike pesticides or drugs, there's 
no real explicit government regulation of 
plastics. We have a very fragmented and fairly 
ineffective patchwork of laws to regulate 
synthetic chemicals. The central regulation there 
is something called the Toxic Substances Control 
Act, which was passed in 1976.
People's criticisms of that law are that it has 
tended to treat chemicals as safe until proven to 
be dangerous. But the way that the law is written 
is very difficult to establish that a chemical is 
dangerous because manufacturers do not have to 
volunteer information about that, and the EPA is 
- the Environmental Protection Agency is fairly 
hamstrung in its ability to collect information.

DAVIES: So of all the thousands of different 
kinds of plastics in all of their many, many 
different uses, I mean how secure should we feel 
that somebody's looking out to see whether it's 
hurting us?
(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FREINKEL: I think it depends on how worried 
you want to be. Look, you know, they're a lot of 
plastics out there. Plastics are not created 
equal and I think there are a lot of plastics 
that we don't have to worry about. I'm not so 
worried about polyethylene. I'm not particularly 
worried about polypropylene, which is the stuff 
that's used - the plastics that's used in like 
yogurt containers or margarine tubs. But we 
know...

DAVIES: And you mentioned polyethylene, that's what? The...
Ms. FREINKEL: Polyethylene, that's the stuff of like plastic baggies.

DAVIES: The grocery bags, right? Yeah.

Ms. FREINKEL: Grocery bags. Sort of a film, that 
film plastic. But we know that hazardous 
chemicals are used in plastics and we know that 
some of those plastics will leach chemicals that 
may be harmful to our health, and we don't know 
the full extent of that.
I'll give you an example, which is PET - 
polyethylene terephthalate. It's the plastic 
that's used in soda bottles and water bottles, 
another plastic that we have for decades 
considered an inert plastic. Well, in recent 
years, there have been several studies showing 
that PET can leach some kind of compound that 
seems to have estrogenic activity - that seems to 
act like an estrogen. We don't know what that 
compound is. We don't know whether it's being 
leached in sufficient quantities to have any 
impact on human health.
The fact that we're suddenly discovering it is a 
little disconcerting. You know, that said, I 
think those kinds of findings are why we need to 
have stronger laws that require manufacturers to 
demonstrate the safety of chemicals that they put 
into commerce, because we don't want to be 
finding these things out decades after the fact.

DAVIES: So the basic difference is if you want to 
market a new pharmaceutical, you need to 
demonstrate its safety, to test it. If you want 
to put a new plastic product out you put it out 
and then wait to see if somebody figures out 
there might be a problem.

Ms. FREINKEL: Exactly. I mean plastics came - 
when plastics came bursting onto the scene the 
presumption was that these were inert materials. 
And what we're finding is that they may actually 
be much more biologically active in some cases 
than we ever imagined.

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking 
with writer Susan Freinkel. She's written a new 
book about the presence and effects of plastic in 
our lives. It's called "Plastic: A Toxic Love 
Story."
Have there been problems with plastics leaching from baby bottles?
Ms. FREINKEL: The plastic that used to be used to 
make baby bottles is polycarbonate. It's a hard, 
clear, glass-like plastic and one of the main 
ingredients in that is a chemical called 
bisphenol A, which is an estrogen mimic. If you 
look at a diagram of that molecule, it looks just 
like an estrogen molecule. And bisphenol A has 
been associated with a bunch of health problems, 
including obesity, breast cancer, heart disease 
and others. And so, you know, when research about 
bisphenol A started coming out, you know, people, 
parents especially were understandably horrified 
at the thought that the bottles that they were 
using to feed their babies could potentially be 
leaching this chemical into their babies.
You'd be hard-pressed to buy a baby bottle now 
that contains BPA. You know, this is one of those 
instances where the government didn't step in but 
Walmart did and, you know, the big-box stores 
won't carry BPA bottles. I actually was in San 
Diego a couple of years ago and saw this display 
of sports water bottles, which also used to be 
made of polycarbonate, and they were, these 
things that usually costs like $15 were marked 
down to a dollar because they still had bisphenol 
A in them.

DAVIES: So this is a case where concerns were 
raised about health issues associated with 
bisphenol A and it became such a publicly known 
issue that retailers responded but there was no 
regulatory authority that stepped in and did 
anything?

Ms. FREINKEL: No. No. Bisphenol A is still - 
manufacturers are still free to use bisphenol A, 
although it's acquired such a bad rep that not 
many do. But yeah, this is one of those cases. 
Now, you know, there are other countries -there 
are some states and I don't know the exact number 
there are some states that have outlawed 
bisphenol A and there are some countries that 
have said it can't be used in products that are 
being used by children. The problem, of course, 
is, you know, you end up with this sort of 
patchwork of regulations and no consistency or 
guarantee.

DAVIES: You know, your book is called "Plastic: A 
Toxic Love Story," and you maintain this metaphor 
throughout it of our relationship with plastic. 
And it's clear we're not going to break up. There 
are just too many things that we use. But at the 
end of the book there's this really troubling set 
of statistics you offer that we have produced 
nearly as much plastic in the last 10 years as in 
all of the previous decades combined. Plastic 
production is accelerating. Plastic goods are 
spilling out across the landscape. A culture of 
use and - use and dispose is being exported to a 
developing world. You say plastic production 
could reach two trillion pounds a year by 2050, 
four times today's levels.
This is just kind of depressing, isn't it? I 
mean, is there a way to produce and use less of 
this stuff?

Ms. FREINKEL: I think there is. I think that we 
are going to have to. I mean part of the reason 
you're looking at two trillion pounds is that 
we're exporting not just, you know, good plastic 
consumer goods to the developing countries, but 
also a kind of throwaway culture, and that's 
really what we have to get away from. Half of the 
plastics made now are for throwaway items and 
that is the biggest and sort of most troubling 
use of plastic, because a lot of those are just 
trivial things that we don't need and which, you 
know, end up in swaths of the world's oceans.
I think that the changes that are going to have 
to take place in the way that we deal with 
plastic are changes that are going to have to 
come from everyone with a stake in the future of 
plastics. So that means, you know, manufacturers 
are going to have to be thinking more carefully 
about the way they make plastics, the chemicals 
that are used in them, the kinds of applications 
they have. And we as consumers have to take 
responsibility and look more carefully and 
thoughtfully at the way that we use plastics.

DAVIES: Well, Susan Freinkel, it's been interesting. Thanks so much.

Ms. FREINKEL: Thank you, Dave.
GROSS: Susan Freinkel spoke with FRESH AIR 
contributor Dave Davies. Her new book is called 
"Plastic: A Toxic Love Story." You can read an 
excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward reviews the new 
box set "The Bristol Sessions, 1927 to '28." The 
sessions gave Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter 
family their commercial debuts. This is FRESH AIR.
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