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Are Any Plastics Safe? Industry Tries to Hide Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Bottles, Containers

http://www.democracynow.org/2014/3/4/are_any_plastics_safe_industry_tries


AMY GOODMAN: “Are any plastics safe?” That’s the title—that’s the question of a new exposé by Mother Jones that may shock anyone who drinks out of plastic bottles, gives their children plastic sippy cups or eats out of plastic containers. For years, public campaigns have been waged against plastic containing BPA, Bisphenol-A, a controversial plastic additive. But a new investigation by Mother Jones magazine has revealed that chemicals used to replace BPA may be just as, if not more, dangerous to your health than their cousin compound.

BPA is still widely used in everything from the lining of soup cans to printed receipts, even though studies show it mimics the behavior of estrogen in the human body, and have linked it to breast cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Just last week, a study estimated the use of BPA in food and beverage containers is responsible for some $3 billion a year in healthcare costs. But because BPA can hamper brain and organ development in young children, it’s been banned in bottles and sippy cups since 2012. Now new studies show the plastic products being advertised as BPA-free, and sold by companies such as Evenflo and Nalgene, Tupperware, are still releasing synthetic estrogen.

The Mother Jones report goes on to look at how the plastics industry has used a Big Tobacco-style campaign to bury the disturbing evidence about the products you use every day.

We’re joined in Washington, D.C., now by Mariah Blake, staff reporter with Mother Jones magazine.

Mariah, welcome to Democracy Now! Just lay out what you have found.

MARIAH BLAKE: Well, essentially, there is relatively new research showing that the vast majority of plastics, at least commercially available plastics that are used for food packaging, contain BPA-like chemicals, so chemicals that are what they call estrogenic. And the—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what BPA is.

MARIAH BLAKE: So BPA is a chemical that mimics the hormone estrogen. And estrogen plays—we all have estrogen in our bodies. It plays an essential role in various bodily functions and is also very important in human development, so the development of our brain, the development of our organs. However, too much or too little of this hormone, basically, especially during early childhood or prenatally, can set you up for disease later on in life. So, exposure—what the research shows is that exposure in the womb can then lead to breast cancer, diabetes, increased aggression, really sort of a staggering list of health problems later on in life.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about what has happened since BPA has been banned.

MARIAH BLAKE: So, yes, and many people will recall that in 2008 the dangers of BPA became very widely known. There was a scare. Major retailers pulled BPA from their shelves. Customers began demanding BPA-free products, especially for children. And many manufacturers began introducing products that were BPA-free. And all of us who have children have these BPA-free products in our home, most likely. One of the—so—and in many cases, it turns out that the chemicals that were used to replace BPA, or the plastics contained chemicals that were, you know, similar to BPA—at any rate, many of these chemicals had not been tested to see whether they had similar properties to BPA, whether they mimicked estrogen, in essence. And it turns out that many of them do. So, the implication is that they could have similar effects on human health.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin your piece by telling us the story of Michael Green and his daughter.

MARIAH BLAKE: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that experience.

MARIAH BLAKE: So, Michael Green is—he had a two-year-old daughter. He’s somebody who works in the environmental health field. And he had heard—he had seen research suggesting that BPA-free plastics may have posed some of the same problems to human health. And—but he told me this very moving story about himself and his two-year-old daughter. Somebody else in the family had given his two-year-old daughter this pink plastic sippy cup with a picture of a princess on it, which she just loved. And every night at dinner time, they would have this battle of the wills over this pink plastic sippy cup: He wanted to give her the stainless steel sippy cup; she wanted the pink plastic sippy cup. And in the interest of maintaining peace in the household, occasionally he gave in and gave her this pink plastic sippy cup. But the decision really weighed on him. And I think that those of us who have children—I have a three-year-old son—can relate to this situation, where sometimes you do the expedient thing in the interest of peace, but you wonder if it’s the best thing for your child. And in this case, he decided that he would try to answer that question. And he runs this environment health organization, and he collected sippy cups from Wal-Mart and Toys”R”Us—Babies”R”Us, I’m sorry—and he sent them to an independent lab in Texas to be tested. And he found out that in fact roughly a third of them did contain estrogen-like chemicals.

AMY GOODMAN: And that pink sippy cup?

MARIAH BLAKE: His daughter’s sippy cup was leaching estrogenic chemicals. So his fears were founded.

AMY GOODMAN: And what can that do to her?

MARIAH BLAKE: This is the big question. We know a lot about BPA. BPA is one of the most studied chemicals on the planet. And we know that these chemicals generally are associated with a range of negative health effects. But the specific effect of any given chemical varies slightly from chemical to chemical, and we actually don’t know what chemical is leaching out of that sippy cup. So it’s impossible to know. I mean, there’s a very high correlation with breast cancer, for example, with all of these estrogenic chemicals, and with certain developmental problems. But other specific diseases vary from chemical to chemical. So, Michael Green, the way he describes it is an unplanned science experiment that we’re doing on our families all of the time.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion and talk about Big Tobacco, what Big Plastic has learned from Big Tobacco. We are talking to Mariah Blake, a staff reporter with Mother Jones. Her story is in the new issue of the magazine. It’s called “The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics: And the Big Tobacco-Style Campaign to Bury It.” Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We are with Mariah Blake, staff reporter for Mother Jones magazine. “The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics: And the Big Tobacco-Style Campaign to Bury It” is her new piece. What is the campaign to bury the information, Mariah Blake?

MARIAH BLAKE: Well, there are multiple facets to the campaign, but the primary—the primary objective is to cast doubt on the scientific evidence linking these chemicals to human health problems. So—and there are various ways this is done. In the case of BPA, for example, the industry funded studies, which were biased studies that found that this—that the chemical was not harmful to health. And there’s a sort of network there. They published them in certain journals that, in many cases, had links to the tobacco industry. They relied on scientists that, in many cases, had helped to discredit the science linking smoking and secondhand smoke to disease. So, in many ways, this is—they didn’t only borrow strategies and tactics from Big Tobacco; they are actually relying on the same cadre of experts that Big Tobacco relied on to bury—to bury the truth about smoking.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a video made by the plastics industry featuring the vice president of Eastman’s specialty plastics division, Lucian Boldea, speaking in the video made by the company. A pregnant woman is one of the people shown buying plastic products as Boldea speaks.

LUCIAN BOLDEA: We understand that there are concerns about plastic materials that are used in consumer products that consumers use every day. Those products include water bottles, baby bottles and food storage containers. We can see how available information about plastic materials can be confusing and how it can be difficult for consumers to tell what is really safe. We want you, the consumer, to know the facts behind our clear, tough material named Tritan. Consumers can feel confident that the material used in the product is free of estrogenic activity.

Consumers should have high expectations of the products that they use, and no one is tougher on our products than the researchers and engineers at Eastman Chemical. Most importantly, we have used reputable, independent, third-party laboratories that have used well-recognized scientific methods to prove that Tritan is free of estrogenic activity. Numerous regulatory agencies around the world have independently reviewed our data and have approved the product for use in food contact applications. Some of the world’s most recognized brands trust Tritan as their ingredient.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Lucian Boldea, who is president of Eastman Chemical’s specialty plastics division. Can you respond to this, Mariah Blake?

MARIAH BLAKE: Well, the Eastman product, called Tritan, which is the product that Boldea is speaking about in this video, is actually one of the primary focuses of my investigation. A number of independent scientists have tested this product and found that it is actually more estrogenic than polycarbonate, which is the plastic that contains BPA. And Eastman Chemical, according to internal documents which were released as part of a lawsuit, has taken pains to suppress the evidence showing that its products—or that this product, in particular, is in fact estrogenic.

AMY GOODMAN: So how is it the EPA isn’t regulating this?

MARIAH BLAKE: Well, and this is one of the most surprising things to me when I read this—when I was reporting the story. So, there are about 80,000 chemicals in circulation in the United States. Virtually none of those chemicals has been tested for safety, or a very, very small fraction of those chemicals has been tested for safety. In general, chemicals are presumed safe until proven otherwise under the U.S. regulatory system. So, when a chemical like BPA is removed from a production line, the industry will substitute another chemical that is untested, and we really, in many cases, just don’t know the health effects of that chemical. So, it’s largely an unregulated realm.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about George Bittner.

MARIAH BLAKE: OK. George Bittner is a neuroscientist at the University of Texas, and he has launched an independent lab called CertiChem—it also has a sister company called PlastiPure—and it tests products for estrogenic activity. And he—working with a prominent Georgetown professor, he and his staff tested, I think it was, 455 commercially available plastics that are on the market and published a paper in Environmental Health Perspectives, which is the premier NIH journal, which found that virtually all commercially available plastics have estrogenic activity. And among the plastics he tested were Tritan products, several Tritan products. And this publication, this finding, prompted a pretty big backlash from the industry. So he ended up being targeted by the industry as a result and, in fact, was sued by Eastman, which is—many of the documents that formed the basis of my story were released as a result of that lawsuit.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from a memo that Eastman’s senior chemist, Emmett O’Brien, wrote after customers began asking about George Bittner’s tests that showed that Tritan may still be estrogenic. O’Brien describes a meeting with Whole Foods executives who were considering replacing their polycarbonate bulk food bins with ones made from Tritan. He wrote, quote, “We called Bittner a mad scientist. They didn’t know his name actually. They asked twice, by two independent people, what we thought of them. I hemmed and hawed (ducked and dodged) saying I prefer not to comment, but we joked and pushed and flat out said the guy was ‘shady’ — with this non-stereotypical crowd it was a good term.” O’Brien added, “They asked if they could do their own tests — I mentioned the cost is very high and they were quick to chime in that the tests take very long.” Can you respond to that, Mariah Blake?

MARIAH BLAKE: I think you chose the most telling possible quote. So this was effective—this was the strategy they used. Firstly, they worked to discredit Bittner, and they did this through a campaign of personal character assassination and by calling his business practices into question. And secondly, they worked to discredit the science. So, one of the things that Eastman did was they claimed that the test that Bittner is using, which relies on a specialized line of breast cancer cells, had been rejected by the EPA, when in fact it hadn’t. The EPA is considering using this very line of breast cancer cells for its own screening program for what they call endocrine-disrupting chemicals. BPA is one of those.

So, the other thing they did was they commissioned their own research, so they paid labs to perform research which found that Tritan was not estrogenic. And—but if you look at—if you look at the research closely, you’ll see that it is—the studies are essentially designed in a way that guarantee that estrogenic activity will not be found. So, for instance, they use a type of rat; it’s called a Charles River Sprague Dawley rat. This rat is known to be insensitive to estrogen, so it can withstand doses, according to one Japanese study, a hundred times higher than a human female can withstand, with—and show absolutely no effect. They also used doses that are below what is known as the no-observable-effect level, so the doses that are known not to cause an effect. And they then published their own study in a scientific journal, which is—has numerous tobacco industry ties, finding that Tritan was in fact not estrogenic. So, that is essentially how they responded to the finding that their product contained these chemicals that are potentially harmful to human health: They attempted to cover it up.

AMY GOODMAN: Your report cites some leaked minutes from a 2009 meeting of the BPA Joint Trade Association, whose members include the American Chemical—the American Chemistry Council, Coca-Cola, Del Monte. During the meeting, they explored messaging strategies that included using what they called, quote, “fear tactics.” For example, “Do you want to have access to baby food anymore?” The attendees agreed that the “holy grail” spokesperson was a, quote, “pregnant young mother who would be willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA.” Mariah?

MARIAH BLAKE: Yes, and this is one of the most disturbing things I discovered during the course of reporting this, is that in their efforts to portray plastics as safe, they oftentimes target the groups who are most vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals. So, prenatal exposure and exposure during early childhood is potentially the most harmful, and oftentimes the marketing of these products targets pregnant women, targets families with children. And also, Eastman, for example, in their efforts to portray their products as safe, also targeted these specific groups.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Nalgene bottles, Evenflo—is it Evenflo?—Tupperware, Rubbermaid, CamelBack?

MARIAH BLAKE: Yes, all of these companies produce at least some products that are made with Tritan, so—and they’re not alone. There are hundreds, probably, of companies that use this. This is the only plastic on the market that markets itself as being free of all estrogenic activity, so many companies that cater to consumers who are concerned about their health and many of the high-end consumer brands have started using this plastic. I think the thing to keep in mind is that Eastman misrepresented their product to their customers, as well. So these brands are not necessarily to blame for this. They have been told by Eastman that Eastman produced—performed independent, third-party testing and found no evidence of estrogenic activity. And so, in many cases, it appears that these companies are trying to do the best thing for their customers, but they were not given—they were not given accurate information about the plastic that they use in their products.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, NPR did a report, “Maybe That BPA In Your Canned Food Isn’t So Bad After All.” Can you talk about that?

MARIAH BLAKE: Yes. So, this is based on a recent study that was performed by FDA scientists. This is a $30 million taxpayer-funded study. And the FDA used many of the same tactics that the industry uses. For instance, they used the Charles River Sprague Dawley rat. The other thing about this study is that the lab appears to have been contaminated. So the control group of rats—these are the rats that are supposed to not be exposed to BPA, so that you can—you have some sort of a baseline to measure the animals that have been exposed to this chemical—they were somehow accidentally exposed to BPA. I have been talking to scientists about this and am planning to write about this later this week. And the academic scientists I have been speaking to say that this essentially—this raises very serious questions about the validity of the findings, and it’s unclear whether any conclusions can be drawn based on this study.

AMY GOODMAN: What most shocked you in all your research, Mariah?

MARIAH BLAKE: Boy, that’s a good question, because there were a lot of—a lot of shocking things I discovered. I would say there’s a couple things. One, the fact that so few of the chemicals that are in the products we use every day have been tested for safety. So, as I said, there are 80,000 chemicals that are in commercial use in the United States; only a tiny fraction of those have been tested for safety.

Two, how easy it is for the industry to bias that safety testing in their favor. I had—obviously, many of us know about Big Tobacco and the way they were able to essentially buy science saying their products were safe. But I was not aware that that was happening on such a grand scale today. And it really is. You know, plastics—as I worked on the story, it became evident to me that plastics—that this is not the only industry—the plastics and chemical industry are not the—is not the only one that is using these tactics. These tactics are fairly widespread.

And I guess, on a micro level, one of the things that surprised me most, in Bittner’s testing, he looked at various types of commercially available plastics, and one of the types of plastic that was most frequently estrogenic was the corn-based plastic, so the plastic that is biodegradable, that you often find in restaurants—health food restaurants, health food stores, that this is potentially one of the most harmful types of plastic.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that again.

MARIAH BLAKE: So, Bittner looked at various kinds of plastic, Bittner and his colleagues, when they tested plastics. There’s a variety of different kinds of plastic—polyurethane, PET-P, polycarbonate—all these different kinds of plastic. So he broke it down by types of plastic. He tested a number of samples of each one. And he—in the final paper, they showed which ones—what percentage of each type of plastic tested positive in their tests. And there is a type of plastic that is—frequently you’ll find it in Whole Foods, you’ll find it in health food stores. It is corn-based, and it is marketed as biodegradable. Oftentimes there are forks made out of this, for example, in health food restaurants. I believe the statistic was 95 percent of samples made out of this kind of plastic tested positive for estrogenic activity.

AMY GOODMAN: So what are you going to do with your three-year-old? What have you decided to use?

MARIAH BLAKE: Well, what I’ve already done is removed all plastic from my home. So, I have switched to natural materials. We use glass or stainless steel for our Tupperware, for our sippy cups, for everything that we possibly can. Plastic is unavoidable, so we still buy food packaged in plastic, because there is no alternative. But we try to minimize it.

AMY GOODMAN: Saran Wrap?

MARIAH BLAKE: Saran Wrap, actually, in Bittner’s tests, I believe it was somewhere around 99 to 100 percent of plastic wraps tested positive for estrogenic activity.

AMY GOODMAN: And where does the EPA come down when you question them about when they’re going to be regulating some of this, in the way that they regulated BPA?

MARIAH BLAKE: Well, the EPA still does not regulate BPA. The FDA—the FDA banned BPA in sippy cups and bottles at the request of the industry. So—and they still—the agency still insists that BPA is safe. So the industry asked the FDA to ban it, because they wanted to reassure parents that their products are safe. There has been no meaningful regulation of any of these chemicals, with the exception of phthalates. And in the case of the EPA, they have a program which was supposed to screen these 80,000 chemicals for what’s called endocrine disruption. So, endocrine-disrupting chemicals are chemicals that mimic hormones, like BPA. And they—this was supposed to be at least partially done by 2000. They still haven’t fully vetted a single chemical. So the industry has managed to throw stumbling blocks in their path. And delay is the name of the game, essentially, sowing doubt and delay. So—

AMY GOODMAN: And how much does the plastic in water bottles and juices leach into the water and the juices?

MARIAH BLAKE: PET or PETE, which is most commonly used for water bottles, is—I believe 75 percent of samples in Bittner’s study leached estrogenic activity. There is another study performed by a scientist in Germany which also found that this particular type of product was estrogenic. So, it seems, based on the available evidence, that many or most of these bottles leach estrogen.

AMY GOODMAN: And the longer the bottle of water you buy sits, is the water becoming increasingly contaminated?

MARIAH BLAKE: Well, there are certain factors that increase the risk of these chemicals being released. So, exposure to UV rays, heat, if they’re put in a dishwasher, these are the things that are known to increase—increase the risks that these chemicals leach out of plastics. So, with reusable plastics, in particular, this is a concern. If you boil them, if you put them in your dishwasher, if you leave them in your car, that causes plastics to break down, and it’s more likely that estrogenic chemicals will leak into whatever those containers contain.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mariah Blake, we want to thank you for your research, staff reporter with Mother Jones magazine. Her story is just out in the new issue; it’s called “The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics: And the Big Tobacco-Style Campaign to Bury It.” We’ll link to it at democracynow.org. You can also follow her on Twitter. Later today, she’ll be doing a Twitter chat with readers.

http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/03/tritan-certichem-eastman-bpa-free-plastic-safe

The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics

And the Big Tobacco-style campaign to bury it.

—By Mariah Blake | March/April 2014 Issue – MotherJones


Chasing Molecules by Elizabeth Grossman

An excerpt from the chapter, “The Polycarbonate Problem.”

BPA, Benzene, Phenols, & Carbonyl Chloride (also known as Phosgene)

Although it’s only in the past few years that news of bisphenol A’s health impacts began to reach a nonscientific general public–news that has since spread rapidly–it was first recognized as a synthetic estrogen in the 1930s. Papers published in the journal of Nature in 1933 and 1936 describe its estrogenic effects on lab rats. These papers also commented on the possible carcinogenic activity of materials with similar or comparable composition to bisphenol A–specifically materials synthesized from petroleum (from which bisphenol A is ultimately derived) and coal tar.

Some two decades later, bisphenol A was launched into everyday life with the development of commercially produced polycarbonates. Major production of these plastics began in the United States in the late 1950s after a General Electric engineer named Daniel W. Fox formulated a material based on BPA that GE called Lexan. The invention was not so much deliberately planned as it was the result of what Fox called his ability to take “a few clues and jump to conclusions that frequently panned out.”

While experimenting with different materials that might ultimately make a good moldable polymer, Fox decided to work with bisphenols, compounds derived from petroleum processing that were then being used to make various epoxy resins. As molecules, bisphenols have a structural feature that makes them useful as potential chemical building blocks. Attached to their hydrocarbon ring is what’s called a hydroxyl group, an oxygen and hydrogen that together form a site to which other molecules can bond. This structure is common to both synthetic and naturally occurring compounds, a coincidence that will later turn out to be important to how bisphenol A behaves.

Fox’s interest in the hydroxyl group was as a polymer building site, not for its biological activity. But when attached to a hydrocarbon ring as it is in bisphenol A, the entire chemical grouping becomes a molecule known as a phenol–an aromatic hydrocarbon, a ring made up of six carbon atoms and five hydrogen atoms plus a hydroxyl group. Phenols are commonly made by oxidizing benzene, which essentially means adding oxygen to benzene. Phenols are toxic, but they are also known for their antiseptic properties and so were used to kill germs in the nineteenth century surgical procedures.

This molecular group consisting of six carbon-five hydrogen rings with a hydroxyl group attached, however, is also part of the structure of substances produced naturally by the human body, compounds that include estrogen and thyroid hormones. Introducing a manufactured chemical that includes the phenol group into a cellular environment may therefore pose a problem because the synthetic material may compete biochemically with the similarly structured naturally occurring chemical. Thinking in green chemistry terms, the presence of a phenol group on a synthetic, therefore, should be a sign to investigate that substance’s potential as an endocrine disruptor.

The potential cellular toxicity of phenols has actually been known for decades. Research done in the 1950s, written about by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, discussed the mechanisms by which pesticides constructed with phenols had the ability to prompt oxidation processes that upset cellular metabolism. These reactive chemical groups can disrupt formation of enzymes vital to energy production, which in turn may interfere with how an organism produces and differentiates cellular material. These processes of cellular reproduction are involved in virtually every bodily system, from how an individual processes sugars and calcium to how its reproductive system functions. Carson described the introduction of xeniobiotic phenols as thrusting “a crowbar into the spokes of a wheel. Had Fox been a green chemist, our current synthetic landscape might look very different.

But because Fox and his colleagues were focused on functional performance and on working with readily available chemical ingredients, bisphenols seemed a good choice. As an additional building block that might combine with the bisphenol molecules’ hydrocarbons to yield a useful polymer, Fox chose a chlorine compound called carbonyl chloride. Carbonyl chloride was then–and is currently–a common ingredient in the synthetics known as isocyanates that are used to make any number of products, including polyurethanes that go into varnishes, paints, and plastic foams. By the 1950s it was known that chlorinated hydrocarbons made useful synthetics so this was a logical route for Fox to follow–but no one had yet made the kind of moldable, shatter-resistant plastic that Lexan turned out to be.

If you’re building a polymer, a linked chemical chain in effect, you need lots of the same repeating pieces; ideally you’ll work with shapes that are easy to find and lend themselves to chemical bonding. It’s here that a Tinkertoy or Lego analogy comes to mind. To add pieces to a chemical structure, you need sites where new sticks and building blocks can be attached. So it was with the choice of bisphenols and carbonyl chloride, which lend themselves to such bonding and were both readily available industrial chemicals. Had Fox been practicing green chemistry, however, he would never–even with what was known in the 1950s–have launched a product that required copious quantities of carbonyl chloride.

Carbonyl chloride is also known as phosgene and is so toxic that it was used as a chemical weapon during World War I. The isocyanates it’s used to make are also highly toxic. One such compound, methyl isocyanate, was the gas involved in the deadly 1984 disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. Lest anyone wonder if nerve gas is lurking in your bike helmet or CD cases, however, let me quickly explain that no phosgene or even any chlorine ends up in the final bisphenol A polymer; the chlorine compound is simply a reagent, an ingredient that enables the desired chemical bonding to take place.

Yet speaking to an interviewer in 1983, Fox acknowledged that using large quantities of a chemical such as phosgene was indeed hazardous. But, Fox continued, it “was not a totally frightening undertaking because we had good advice. I would say that we have been tightening up our whole phosgene handling ever since, investing in an awful lot of money in trying to make the stuff doubly safe and then triply safe and quadruply safe.” Still, the interviewer pressed, “Has there ever been a problem?” To which Fox responded, “We have had one or two small discharges. To my knowledge, I don’t think GE advertised it, but I think we probably had a ‘casualty’ from phosgene.” Did this give anyone second thoughts about going into business? “I don’t think it did,” Fox replied.

At the time Fox was working, new material inventions like carbonates were just that–inventions that came first, with applications and markets found later. “When we invented polycarbonates in the early 1950s we had a polymer with an interesting set of properties and no readily apparent applications,” Fox said in 1983. But what was known about polycarbonates’ behavior early on that might have hinted at what’s since been discovered about their physical and biological behavior” Could this information have been used to prevent what are clearly problems of chemical contamination? Endocrine-disruption science is relatively new, but some of what was known early on about bisphenol A and polycarbonates would seem to indicate a material perhaps not ideally suited for use, say, with food, heat, and dishwashing detergents.

That polycarbonates built from bisphenol A were vulnerable to certain detergents, solvents, and alkali solutions (household ammonia would qualify) has been known since at least the 1970s. Ammonium hydroxide (essentially a solution of ammonia in water) was discussed as a possible way to break polycarbonates down to its chemical constituents–for materials recovery and reuse and as a way to remove unwanted polycarbonate from another surface. It was also known that various additives used to modify polycarbonate mixtures could leach from the finished plastics when they came into contact with certain liquids. Documents filed with the Federal Register in 1977 list chloroform, methylene chloride, and chlorobenzene among these additives. (The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers chloroform and methylene chloride suspected carcinogens, while chlorobenzene is known to cause liver, kidney, and nervous system damage and produce a precancerous condition in lab rats.) Correspondence between GE Plastics Division personnel in the 1970s and 1980s also voiced concern over the presence of chlorobenzene in water stored in polycarbonate bottles (but not bottles made by GE as it happened) and about how the stability of these polymers might affect their ability to be used with food.

A memo circulated within the Lexan division of GE in 1978 also noted that “through reaction with water,” polycarbonate resin can degrade. “The two largest applications of Lexan resin for which hydrolytic stability is critically important are baby bottles and water bottles,” ran the 1978 memo.

In each application the finished parts are subjected to conditions which will cause, after prolonged treatment, molecular weight reduction. However, in each application, actual product failure is usually observed before significant molecular weight reduction is detectable by the usual techniques…..Baby bottles are subjected to autoclaving at 250 degrees F in saturated steam and fail under these conditions by becoming opaque, and sometimes by shrinking and deforming. Milk and water bottles are washed in aqueous solutions of alkaline or caustic cleaning agents and fail by stress cracking. The relationship between practical failure modes and the fundamental physical and chemical processes involved is not fully understood.

That polycarbonates might degrade when heated, washed, or exposed to sunlight was also discussed in company memos in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Three decades later, the plastics industry assures consumers that such wear and tear of polycarbonate baby bottles poses no health concerns for infant users.

Pages 58 – 62

To read more about this extremely informative book and sale information click on the link below.

 

Chasing Molecules

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Cloudy with a chance of toxics: How climate change is increasing our vulnerability to chemical pollution by Elizabeth Grossman

December 3, 2009

This guest post is by Elizabeth Grossman, author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry and High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. She writes about environmental and science issues for the Washington Post, Salon, Mother Jones, the Nation, Grist, and other publications from Portland, Oregon. One of the book’s jacket quotes is from The great environmental writer and founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben: “There are enough environmental problems that seem insoluble. Elizabeth Grossman has given us this chronicle of a field with a bright future, the green chemistry that will replace the crude methods of the 19th century with the smart ones of the 21st. She tells us how it could happen. We should listen carefully!“

To melting ice caps, rising sea levels, acidifying oceans, and storm surges, add lung diseases and kidney stones to the expected effects of climate change. At a November 19 briefing in Washington, researchers from the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment, representatives of the American Medical Association and American Public Health Association detailed the likely negative health effects of global warming. These are conditions, reported Paul Epstein, Associate Director of the Harvard center, to which children, the elderly, and poor are especially vulnerable.

Rising temperatures, ozone and sulfur dioxide levels, along with particulate and other pollutants released by forest fires, will create conditions that are expected to increase rates of hospitalization for respiratory diseases, among them pneumonia, asthma, and chronic lung disease. Increased heat exposure, noted the researchers who’ve described these effects in a letter to President Obama, is also likely to increase the incidence of kidney stones.

But these are just some of the adverse health impacts associated with climate change.

In addition to the effects noted at the November 19 briefing – and those prompted by impacts of drought and altered insect patterns – rising temperatures are already triggering environmental conditions that have less visible but potentially profound health implications.

For traveling with global air and ocean currents are a soup of environmentally persistent synthetic chemicals whose behavior and effects are being exacerbated by climate change. Scientists tracking these chemicals around the globe are discovering that the movement of these long-lasting substances – manufactured materials that have no natural origin – is being accelerated by effects of rising temperatures. Researchers are also finding that global warming is increasing human and wildlife communities’ vulnerability to these chemicals’ biological impacts.

One of the places this is happening most dramatically is in the Arctic. Thanks to patterns of atmospheric circulation, whatever is released into air and oceans in the Northern Hemisphere, eventually moves north. This includes persistent pollutants.

After drifting north over months, years – and even decades – these chemicals typically become lodged in ice, snow, and permafrost. But as temperatures rise, these contaminants are being released as glaciers, polar sea ice, and permafrost melt. At the same time, climate change is prompting earlier Arctic springs, longer summers, and increased precipitation. More rain and snow and greater and faster snowmelt are causing erosion along polar riverbanks, lakes, and coastlines. Consequently, soil-bound contaminants are being washed into nearby water along with whatever pollutants arrive with the precipitation itself.

Further south, extreme storms like Hurricane Katrina can similarly release contaminants previously held in place by soil and send them into adjacent air and water. Some of these chemicals will later move into the atmosphere and back down to Earth again with moisture. Raining toxics sounds a bit extreme, but that’s what it amounts to.

What makes these chemicals’ behavior of even greater concern is that they are finding their way into our food, our bodies, and the innermost workings of living cells.

This is happening because many of these persistent synthetic chemicals are fat-soluble. In the Arctic – and in more temperate latitudes – these chemicals are accumulating in fat cells and thus climbing the food web. Arctic animals, particularly top predators like polar bears, with their large fat stores have among the highest levels recorded of some of these mobile persistent pollutants.

Meanwhile, seasonal climate changes are adding to these animals’ vulnerability. As altered temperature patterns change timing and location of food sources, some animals in polar regions north and south must migrate farther to find food. The lengthened hunting trips increase the animals’ stress levels and their reliance on stored body fat. Because fat cells serve as a reservoir for many contaminants, when fat is broken for energy, the toxics are also released, exposing the animals from within. There is concern that such toxics release is happening in people as well – concern underscored by the fact that a number of these chemicals appear to disrupt hormone activity with results that include adverse impacts on metabolism, including fat production.

There is no quick fix for these problems but it is worth noting that our reliance on fossil fuels has helped make petrochemicals the foundation for the overwhelming majority of our synthetic materials – manufactured substances that go into everything from computers to cosmetics. And petrochemicals have particularly problematic environmental and health impacts. To begin stem this tide, as we begin to shift away from fossil fuels and create new materials – alternatives to those with adverse environmental and health impacts – among the questions we must ask to help ensure new materials’ safety must be: how a substance behaves biologically – its impact on living cells – and how it behaves physically, including its possible contribution to the impacts of climate change.

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This article was referenced in Chasing Molecules in the chapter, Swimmers, Hoppers, and Fliers.


Dust Storms Overseas Carry Contaminants to U.S.
Scientists Study Whether Diseases Are Also Transported

By Doug Struck

Washington Post
February 6, 2008

Seventy-five years ago, aviator Charles Lindbergh turned the controls of his pontoon plane over to his co-pilot, wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh, while flying above Iceland. He thrust a makeshift metal arm holding a sticky glass plate from the cockpit. He wanted to see if the winds high aloft the Earth were as clean as they seemed.

They were not.

Now, with NASA satellites and sampling by researchers around the world, scientists know that great billowing clouds of dust waft over the oceans in the upper atmosphere, arriving in North America from deserts in Africa and Asia.

Researchers have also found that the dust clouds contain not only harmful minerals and industrial pollutants, but also living organisms: bacteria, fungus and viruses that may transmit diseases to humans. Some say an alarming increase in asthma in children in the Caribbean is the consequence of dust blown from Africa, and predict they will find similar connections in the Southeast and Northwest United States.

Scientists are beginning to look at these dust clouds as possible suspects in transcontinental movement of diseases such as influenza and SARS in humans, or foot-and-mouth disease in livestock. Until recently, epidemiologists had looked at people, animals and products as carriers of the diseases.

“We are just beginning to accumulate the evidence of airborne dust implications on human health,” said William A. Sprigg, a climate expert at the University of Arizona. “Until now, it’s been like the tree falling in the forest. Nobody heard, so nobody knew it was there.”

The World Meteorological Organization, a science arm of the United Nations, is alarmed enough to set up a global warning system to track the moving clouds of dust and to alert those in the path. Sprigg is heading the project.

He foresees a system soon in which forecasters can predict “down to the Zip code” the arrival of dust clouds. That forecast could prompt schools and nursing homes to keep their wards inside, and help public health doctors predict a surge of respiratory complaints.

Analysis of soil samples has long shown that minerals picked up from barren deserts reach distant shores, for good or bad. The Amazon rain forest in South America, for example, gets phosphate nutrients from dust blown in from northern Africa’s Sahara Desert.

Industrial development has added heavy metals and toxic chemicals to that airborne mix. Korea and Japan periodically chafe as storms of “Yellow Dust” wash over from China, bringing a caustic mix of sand and industrial pollutants.

Even natural minerals can be harmful to humans, and dust-borne particles have been linked to annual meningitis outbreaks in Africa and silicosis lung disease in Kazakhstan and North Africa. The Dust Bowl storms of the 1930s in the United States brought graphic descriptions of choking sediment getting into the lungs of people and felling livestock.

But the advent of satellite images gave scientists a sobering look at how even faraway storms can reach us.

Traveling for a week over the Pacific from the Gobi and Taklimakan deserts in Asia, clouds carrying hundreds of millions of tons of dust regularly reach the northwestern United States. From the Sahara and Sahel deserts in Africa and the East, they roll across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and reach the southeastern United States in three to five days.

Authorities in Los Angeles estimate that on some days, one-quarter of the city’s smog comes from China.

“There is plenty of evidence from space observations of the Northern Hemisphere that there is a persistent ring of industrial emission dust and other pollutants in the air. You can actually see this bathtub ring around the Northern Hemisphere,” said Stanley A. Morain, who heads the Earth Data Analysis Center at the University of New Mexico and collaborates with Sprigg.

“If something breaks out, it can move very quickly into other areas,” he said.

Dust storms may be increasing as global warming and desertification expand arid areas. The dust swirls into the atmosphere containing plant pollens, fungal spores, dried animal feces, minerals, chemicals from fires and industry, and pesticide residues.

Asthma in the Caribbean increased just as an African drought increased the amount of dust washing over the islands. Asthma has increased in Barbados 17 times since 1973, when the African drought began, according to a national study there, and researchers have documented an increase in pediatric hospital admissions when the dust storms are worst.

Scientists previously had thought bacteria and viruses picked up by the dust storms would die on long flights, when they are exposed to ultraviolet radiation and extreme temperatures. But three-inch African locusts have been found alive in the Caribbean after dust storms.

In the late 1990s, Eugene Shinn, who was studying the widespread die-off of Caribbean coral reefs for the U.S. Geological Survey in Florida, began wondering if smaller living organisms came with the dust. He eventually linked live microbes brought from Africa to sea fan disease, which was infecting the coral.

Shinn enlisted USGS microbiologist Dale Griffin. They and other colleagues devised a method of collecting air samples, using a contraption built with a vacuum pump from Home Depot drawing air through a two-inch round sterile filter.

In the first test, collected during a dusty day in 2000 over the Virgin Islands, Griffin said he thought they might find evidence of four or five different microorganisms growing colonies on the filter. Instead, he found 30 colonies, each with billions of cells.

“I did not expect that many,” he said. “And we know that whatever grows on the filter represents only about 1 percent of what’s really there. People just don’t think about microorganisms moving around the atmosphere, at least that far.”

Griffin said that “in Florida in the summer, when the dust storms are pulsing across, if you walk outside and breathe, 50 percent of the particles you breathe come from Africa,” more than 4,000 miles away. They contain mold spores and bacteria that increase allergies and respiratory diseases.

Shinn, who is now retired, said that there has not been enough response to these findings.

“No one in authority really wants to hear about this problem, even when it is known that African dust sporadically exceeds EPA air standards in places like Miami during the summer months,” Shinn said in a letter recently. “No government agency wants to face this problem because no one knows what to do about it.

“In my opinion, nothing will change regarding either African or Asian dust until we have a catastrophe such as a large-scale avian flu, West Nile virus, or some other deadly outbreak that cannot be explained away by the usual suspects,” he said. “Meanwhile we will continue to employ agents to check for fruit in baggage and dirt on tourists’ shoes while hundreds of millions of tons of soil dust carrying live microbes continue to be transported unchecked overhead.”

Unchecked, perhaps, but not unwatched. The early warning system being devised by Sprigg will track those storms, integrating the data with weather forecasts, so that local authorities have notice of one to three days to take precautions. Parts of the system have already been set up in China and Europe.

In addition to medical precautions, police can be warned about deteriorating driving visibility and airports can plan to reroute planes, Sprigg said. He said he hopes the next step will be more aggressive medical research to determine the composition and human health threats of what is in those dust clouds.

“I really see some practical applications here,” he said. “We are just getting started.”

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Dust Storms Overseas Carry Contaminants to U.S.


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Chasing Molecules – Nanotechnology Regulation

Excerpt from the Chapter Nanotechnology.
Pages 154 – 155

So, Colvin asks, “How do you create a safe system for these materials? How do you make decisions with a science in progress?” Part of what makes developing safety protocols, let alone standards for nanomaterials so complex, Colvin reminds me, is that “there are so many permutations of a nanoparticle that it upends the traditional strategy of single-item toxicology.” This means that new safety procedures are needed for handling, working with, and producing nanomaterials–something being called for by industry and scientists, and also now by governments. In 2005, however, less than 4 percent of the U.S. federal spending budget dedicated to nanotechnology was designated for environmental, health, and safety research. In 2007, I was told off-the-record by an EPA official that much of the oversight of nanotechnology that had been done was being carried out not by the federal government but by the Wilson Center and other institutions, although much of this research did receive EPA funding. The implication was that the federal government had fallen behind on the job and that the Bush administration let that happen.

Since then, there has been a litany of reports–including from the National Research Council–pointing out lack of oversight in nanotechnology, the lack of resources currently available for such work within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the lack of adequate safety testing for nanomaterials currently in consumer products, now processed foods among them. According to the Wilson Center, as of December 2008, the worldwide nanotechnology food market was estimated to grow to more than $20 billion by 2010. By the center’s count there were already some 84 consumer products in the food-and-beverage sector that manufacturers claim are nanotechnology products.

There has also now been a flurry of efforts to regulate nanotechnology. In January 2009, a nanotechnology research bill that would increase funding for environmental health and safety work was introduced by Representative Barton Gordon of Tennessee along with twenty-one cosponsors and support from the House Science and Technology Committee. At about the same time, Canada proposed legislation that would require companies using nanotechnology products to detail their use. And under a law passed in the European Union in March 2009 that will be become effective in 2012, all cosmetics made with nanomaterials will have to undergo safety testing and have all such ingredients listed if they’re to be sold in the EU. But as of April 1, 2009, the United States has no specific provisions for testing the safety of products containing nanomaterials or any labeling requirements for such products.

Currently, for practical purposes–as far as consumer products are concerned–nanomaterials are generally being treated like any other new synthetics that come onto the market. They have been launched into commercial production with little real knowledge of what their long-term environmental or health impacts may be. And while green chemistry advocates like Anastas, Colvin, Collins, and Hutchinson have articulated quite clearly–both in terms of policy and their own work–how important it is to consider the full range of nanomaterials’ impacts at the design stage, the products of such thinking have yet to become the norm.

At a “Safer Nano” conference I attended in 2007, I listened to a presentation that described a series of nanomaterials that were layered compounds with reactive properties that can be used in insulation and cooling materials. (One possible application is in vehicle upholstery.) One of the compounds described contained antimony, lead, silver, and tellurium. “Lead. What is lead doing in a ‘safer’ material? I wondered. Aren’t we now keeping children off playing fields coated with artificial turf because it contains lead dust and taking toys off shelves because of lead contamination? And these now-barred products have big–not nano-scale–particles of lead. After decades of being misled that the lead content in paint was not a health hazard, why should the public accept the assurance that lead in a nanomaterial that heats car seats is not a problem? The amounts of lead in such a product might be so small as to be insignificant even by the most sensitive measures of health effects. On the other hand, the particles might be so small as to create new problems. Again, at this point we just don’t know. And the challenge is to figure out how to develop transparent and effective testing that will protect public and environmental health but not impede innovative technology……

Precisely because nanomaterials are distinctly different from others, they create a special imperative, says Paul Anastas, “To get things right at the design stage.” With nanomaterials, says Anastas, we need to have “innovation by design and not by accident.” And because the products are already on store shelves, in our kitchen and bathroom cabinets, it is especially imperative that we begin to catch up with this avalanche of new materials. Anastas adds: “We’re on the verge of having a very scared public–irrationally in some cases–if we don’t ask the questions that could cut the risks.”

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Chasing Molecules by Elizabeth Grossman

Excerpt from the chapter Material Consequences
Pages 160 – 161

Concepts in Green Chemistry

“The fundamental concept of green chemistry,” Collins tells me, can be spelled out in an equation: “Risk equals exposure times hazard [Risk = Hazard X Exposure]. As green chemists, let’s try to understand the hazard and get the hazard out. We have to turn the aircraft carrier around and get the hazard out.” Another aspect of this metaphorical ship is that we’ve relied on our preferred energy source–petroleum–to supply the base for so many of our current synthetics. “If you don’t have the energy problem fixed, it overwhelms everything else.” notes Collins.

“A hundred years ago, the chemical industry was terrible about protecting us from chemicals that kill cells. Now we’re dealing with chemicals that disrupt cellular development, chemicals that interact with DNA and may cause mutations that can lead to cancer. The stakes of not dealing with endocrine disrupters are very high. We need to address endocrine disruptors from inside chemistry.” It all comes back to chemical design, Collins believes.

“The body has a magnificent mechanism for destroying chemicals,” says Collins. And some chemicals need to be persistent. “Drugs must be persistent to work. But when they get into rivers and lakes–what does that mean in the long term?” Yet he points out–alluding to the endocrine-disrupting compounds found in so many personal care products, cosmetics, gadgets, and textiles–persistent compounds are being used to “gloss up the life of adults while messing up the life of kids. There needs to be a mandate of intergenerational responsibility in a way we’ve never seen before.”

“There’s a fracture in the world of research, with research threatening the status quo of corporate culture. Real-time profits are going to be challenged and it’s extremely threatening to certain segments of corporate culture,” says Collins. “How do you respond to a new product when there is a problem? Do you pretend it doesn’t exist? We need to talk about it publicly. These issues really, really matter, and we need to do something about them.”

The morning after the presentation he’s given to the Oregon Environmental Council, I have a conversation with Collins over breakfast. “Capitalism can’t work for sustainability without credible government constraints,” he tells me. “We’ve been obsessed by technical performance and entirely missed anticipating bioaccumulation.”

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Chasing Molecules by Elizabeth Grossman

An excerpt from the chapter, “The Polycarbonate Problem.”

BPA, Benzene, Phenols, & Carbonyl Chloride (also known as Phosgene)

Although it’s only in the past few years that news of bisphenol A’s health impacts began to reach a nonscientific general public–news that has since spread rapidly–it was first recognized as a synthetic estrogen in the 1930s. Papers published in the journal of Nature in 1933 and 1936 describe its estrogenic effects on lab rats. These papers also commented on the possible carcinogenic activity of materials with similar or comparable composition to bisphenol A–specifically materials synthesized from petroleum (from which bisphenol A is ultimately derived) and coal tar.

Some two decades later, bisphenol A was launched into everyday life with the development of commercially produced polycarbonates. Major production of these plastics began in the United States in the late 1950s after a General Electric engineer named Daniel W. Fox formulated a material based on BPA that GE called Lexan. The invention was not so much deliberately planned as it was the result of what Fox called his ability to take “a few clues and jump to conclusions that frequently panned out.”

While experimenting with different materials that might ultimately make a good moldable polymer, Fox decided to work with bisphenols, compounds derived from petroleum processing that were then being used to make various epoxy resins. As molecules, bisphenols have a structural feature that makes them useful as potential chemical building blocks. Attached to their hydrocarbon ring is what’s called a hydroxyl group, an oxygen and hydrogen that together form a site to which other molecules can bond. This structure is common to both synthetic and naturally occurring compounds, a coincidence that will later turn out to be important to how bisphenol A behaves.

Fox’s interest in the hydroxyl group was as a polymer building site, not for its biological activity. But when attached to a hydrocarbon ring as it is in bisphenol A, the entire chemical grouping becomes a molecule known as a phenol–an aromatic hydrocarbon, a ring made up of six carbon atoms and five hydrogen atoms plus a hydroxyl group. Phenols are commonly made by oxidizing benzene, which essentially means adding oxygen to benzene. Phenols are toxic, but they are also known for their antiseptic properties and so were used to kill germs in the nineteenth century surgical procedures.

This molecular group consisting of six carbon-five hydrogen rings with a hydroxyl group attached, however, is also part of the structure of substances produced naturally by the human body, compounds that include estrogen and thyroid hormones. Introducing a manufactured chemical that includes the phenol group into a cellular environment may therefore pose a problem because the synthetic material may compete biochemically with the similarly structured naturally occurring chemical. Thinking in green chemistry terms, the presence of a phenol group on a synthetic, therefore, should be a sign to investigate that substance’s potential as an endocrine disruptor.

The potential cellular toxicity of phenols has actually been known for decades. Research done in the 1950s, written about by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, discussed the mechanisms by which pesticides constructed with phenols had the ability to prompt oxidation processes that upset cellular metabolism. These reactive chemical groups can disrupt formation of enzymes vital to energy production, which in turn may interfere with how an organism produces and differentiates cellular material. These processes of cellular reproduction are involved in virtually every bodily system, from how an individual processes sugars and calcium to how its reproductive system functions. Carson described the introduction of xeniobiotic phenols as thrusting “a crowbar into the spokes of a wheel. Had Fox been a green chemist, our current synthetic landscape might look very different.

But because Fox and his colleagues were focused on functional performance and on working with readily available chemical ingredients, bisphenols seemed a good choice. As an additional building block that might combine with the bisphenol molecules’ hydrocarbons to yield a useful polymer, Fox chose a chlorine compound called carbonyl chloride. Carbonyl chloride was then–and is currently–a common ingredient in the synthetics known as isocyanates that are used to make any number of products, including polyurethanes that go into varnishes, paints, and plastic foams. By the 1950s it was known that chlorinated hydrocarbons made useful synthetics so this was a logical route for Fox to follow–but no one had yet made the kind of moldable, shatter-resistant plastic that Lexan turned out to be.

If you’re building a polymer, a linked chemical chain in effect, you need lots of the same repeating pieces; ideally you’ll work with shapes that are easy to find and lend themselves to chemical bonding. It’s here that a Tinkertoy or Lego analogy comes to mind. To add pieces to a chemical structure, you need sites where new sticks and building blocks can be attached. So it was with the choice of bisphenols and carbonyl chloride, which lend themselves to such bonding and were both readily available industrial chemicals. Had Fox been practicing green chemistry, however, he would never–even with what was known in the 1950s–have launched a product that required copious quantities of carbonyl chloride.

Carbonyl chloride is also known as phosgene and is so toxic that it was used as a chemical weapon during World War I. The isocyanates it’s used to make are also highly toxic. One such compound, methyl isocyanate, was the gas involved in the deadly 1984 disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. Lest anyone wonder if nerve gas is lurking in your bike helmet or CD cases, however, let me quickly explain that no phosgene or even any chlorine ends up in the final bisphenol A polymer; the chlorine compound is simply a reagent, an ingredient that enables the desired chemical bonding to take place.

Yet speaking to an interviewer in 1983, Fox acknowledged that using large quantities of a chemical such as phosgene was indeed hazardous. But, Fox continued, it “was not a totally frightening undertaking because we had good advice. I would say that we have been tightening up our whole phosgene handling ever since, investing in an awful lot of money in trying to make the stuff doubly safe and then triply safe and quadruply safe.” Still, the interviewer pressed, “Has there ever been a problem?” To which Fox responded, “We have had one or two small discharges. To my knowledge, I don’t think GE advertised it, but I think we probably had a ‘casualty’ from phosgene.” Did this give anyone second thoughts about going into business? “I don’t think it did,” Fox replied.

At the time Fox was working, new material inventions like carbonates were just that–inventions that came first, with applications and markets found later. “When we invented polycarbonates in the early 1950s we had a polymer with an interesting set of properties and no readily apparent applications,” Fox said in 1983. But what was known about polycarbonates’ behavior early on that might have hinted at what’s since been discovered about their physical and biological behavior” Could this information have been used to prevent what are clearly problems of chemical contamination? Endocrine-disruption science is relatively new, but some of what was known early on about bisphenol A and polycarbonates would seem to indicate a material perhaps not ideally suited for use, say, with food, heat, and dishwashing detergents.

That polycarbonates built from bisphenol A were vulnerable to certain detergents, solvents, and alkali solutions (household ammonia would qualify) has been known since at least the 1970s. Ammonium hydroxide (essentially a solution of ammonia in water) was discussed as a possible way to break polycarbonates down to its chemical constituents–for materials recovery and reuse and as a way to remove unwanted polycarbonate from another surface. It was also known that various additives used to modify polycarbonate mixtures could leach from the finished plastics when they came into contact with certain liquids. Documents filed with the Federal Register in 1977 list chloroform, methylene chloride, and chlorobenzene among these additives. (The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers chloroform and methylene chloride suspected carcinogens, while chlorobenzene is known to cause liver, kidney, and nervous system damage and produce a precancerous condition in lab rats.) Correspondence between GE Plastics Division personnel in the 1970s and 1980s also voiced concern over the presence of chlorobenzene in water stored in polycarbonate bottles (but not bottles made by GE as it happened) and about how the stability of these polymers might affect their ability to be used with food.

A memo circulated within the Lexan division of GE in 1978 also noted that “through reaction with water,” polycarbonate resin can degrade. “The two largest applications of Lexan resin for which hydrolytic stability is critically important are baby bottles and water bottles,” ran the 1978 memo.

In each application the finished parts are subjected to conditions which will cause, after prolonged treatment, molecular weight reduction. However, in each application, actual product failure is usually observed before significant molecular weight reduction is detectable by the usual techniques…..Baby bottles are subjected to autoclaving at 250 degrees F in saturated steam and fail under these conditions by becoming opaque, and sometimes by shrinking and deforming. Milk and water bottles are washed in aqueous solutions of alkaline or caustic cleaning agents and fail by stress cracking. The relationship between practical failure modes and the fundamental physical and chemical processes involved is not fully understood.

That polycarbonates might degrade when heated, washed, or exposed to sunlight was also discussed in company memos in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Three decades later, the plastics industry assures consumers that such wear and tear of polycarbonate baby bottles poses no health concerns for infant users.

Pages 58 – 62

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Chasing Molecules

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Chasing Molecules by Elizabeth Grossman

“I’ve synthesized over a hundred molecules that never existed before,” Warner tells me. By the time he finished graduate school at Princeton in 1988, with a PhD in organic chemistry, Warner had published seventeen scientific papers–many on compounds related to pharmaceuticals, particularly anticancer drugs–a volume of research publication he immodestly but matter-of-factly says is “perhaps unprecedented.”

One day Warner got a call from Polaroid offering him a job in their exploratory research division. So he went to work synthesizing new materials for the company, inventing compounds for photographic and film processes. Describing his industrial chemistry work in an article for the Royal Chemistry Society, Warner wrote: “I synthesized more and more new compounds. I put methyl groups and ethyl groups in places where they had never been. This was my pathway to success.” There was even a series of compounds he invented that, in his honor, became known as “Warner complexes.”

Warner had married in graduate school and while working at Polaroid had three children. His youngest and second son, John–born in 1991–was born with a serious birth defect. It was a liver disease, Warner tells me, caused by the absence of a working billiary system (which creates the secretions necessary for digestion). Despite intensive medical care, surgery, and a liver transplant, John died in 1993 at age two. “You can’t imagine what it was like,” says Warner. “Laying awake at night, I started wondering if there was something I worked with, some chemical that could possibly have caused this birth defect,” Warner recalls. He knows it’s unlikely that this was the case, but contemplating this possibility made him acutely aware of how little attention he and his colleagues devoted to the toxicity or ecological impacts of the materials they were creating….

“I never had a class in toxicology or environmental hazards,” Warner tells me. “I have synthesized over 2,500 compounds! I have never been taught what makes a chemical toxic! I have no idea what makes a chemical an environmental hazard! I have synthesized over 2,500 compounds! I have no idea what makes a chemical toxic!” “We’ve been monkeys typing Shakespeare,” he adds.

“The chemical synthesis toolbox is really full, and 90 percent of what’s in that toolbox is really nasty stuff.” It’s a coincidence and reality of history, Warner tells me, but the petroleum industry has been the primary creator of materials for our society. “Most of our materials’ feedstock is petroleum. As petroleum is running out, things will have to change.” But, he says, it’s an oversimplification to say that using naturally occurring, non petroleum materials will automatically be safe.

Industrial chemistry has relied on the criteria of performance and cost. But safety, Warner adds has not been an equal part of the equation. Green chemistry puts safety as well as material and energy efficiency on a par with performance and cost. This sounds like common sense, but our economic system’s overwhelming focus on performance–combined with the past century’s reliance on what have been inexpensive petroleum-based feedstocks (or base materials)–have created a vast number of high-performing but environmentally inefficient and detrimental materials.

What we need to do, says Warner, is link the design and function of the new materials and new molecular synthesis with an assessment of their hazard and risk. “Historically, we’ve mitigated risk,” explains Warner, “and we’ve done this by trying to limit exposure,” If we eliminate hazard in the first place, the issue of quibbling over exposure limits–where all of our chemical pollutant regulatory energy has been focused–goes away. If you haven’t created and put materials with inherent hazards into introduction and commercial uses, you do not have to decide, for example, if it’s safe to expose high school but not elementary and middle school students to lead dust emanating from artificial turf, or wonder why New York allows its residents to be exposed to higher levels of a potentially carcinogenic agent than does California.

“We’ve taken it as a fait accompli that chemistry must be dangerous. But the cost of using hazardous materials is exponentially more costly,” says Warner. “There is no reason that a molecule must be toxic in order to perform a particular task.” the cost of storing, transporting, treating, and disposing hazardous materials, not to mention the expense of liability, and corporate responsibility for worker health and safety, are among the high costs associated with using hazardous materials. Corporations have seldom been required to take responsibility for hazardous materials they use or produced–apart from product failures–beyond some aspects of the manufacturing stage. The costs of environmental impacts were not considered an explicit cost of doing business; they were what are referred to technically as externalities. As that view has slowly begun to change, with pressure from consumers, unions, government regulators, and the courts, manufacturers are increasingly motivated to find ways to reduce these costs. Green chemists argue that one of the most effective ways to do so is by designing more environmentally benign and efficient products.

“What you do in industrial chemistry,” says Warner, “is make and break bonds–bonds that come together and apart again, that assemble and reassemble, and are reversible–dominate.” This is important, he tells me, because “if we can learn what molecules ‘want’ to do–if we can learn what they do in nature–we should be able to make better, less toxic products.” If we can do that, we won’t be fighting nature or introducing ultimately unwanted, often hazardous, and inefficient elements into the synthetic process.

“…I had a great relationship with Polaroid,” recalls Warner, “But after my son died, I left because I wanted to create the world’s first green chemistry PhD program” –which he did, at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell in 2002… Warner tells me, “Chemistry for nonscientists is all about the environment, but the American Chemical Society that accredits U.S. academic chemistry programs includes no environmental studies in its requirements.”

“One of the astonishing things I learned while talking to green chemistry advocates and chemical engineers–and that helps explain why there has been so little attention to anything like footprint analysis–is that neither toxicology nor ecology has been required as part of a chemist’s academic training” – Elizabeth Grossman

Listen to the discussions of environmental impact and product life and you’ll likely hear the phrases “life cycle analysis,” “cradle-to-cradle,” “cradle-to-grave,” and “cradle-to-gate.” All can be variously and subjectively defined. A life cycle analysis is generally understood to analyze and account for the environmental impacts of a product’s entire manufacturing process, its impacts while in use, and its impacts when a product is no longer useful. Cradle-to-cradle assumes the premise of a closed loop production and product life-cycle loop–in which materials are reclaimed and reused, while cradle-to-grave assumes disposal rather than reuse or recycling for at least some portion of the product when it’s discarded. Cradle-to-gate, meanwhile, has cropped up as a way for companies to measure the environmental footprint of their products but to stop at the factory gate–excluding what happens when the product goes out into the world. The proliferation of terms indicates that assessing environmental impacts is far from a standardized process and is often more of an afterthought than an integral consideration from the beginning of the manufacturing process for synthetic chemicals or any other product.

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