Toxic Chemical Footprints of Everyday Items

Alternet
Published on Alternet (http://www.alternet.org)

The Horrifying Toxic Chemical Footprints of Everyday Items
OnEarth Magazine [1] / By Susan Freinkel [2]

Toxic Chemicals
September 11, 2014  |
This story originally appeared at OnEarth.org. [3]

In a 2007 Skidmore College museum exhibit titled Molecules That Matter [4], the exhibit’s curators noted that we are never more than three feet away from something plastic. That stunning statistic reflects just how thoroughly plastics permeate the fabric of our daily lives. So it’s sobering, then, to consider that the plastics industry is one of the largest consumers and users of chemicals known to be hazardous to human health or to the environment.

The process by which fossil fuels are transformed into an iPhone case—or a toothbrush, a Barbie, a soda bottle, a car seat, or countless other objects—consumes a mindboggling 244 million tons of toxic chemicals, according to a recent report [5]. The recipes for many of our most common consumer plastics include carcinogens such as benzene and styrene, as well as hormone-disrupting phthalates and Bisphenol A (BPA). Indeed, 96 percent of the BPA that gets produced in our labs goes toward the manufacture of plastics.

Consumers have been concerned about the issue for years. But with plastic playing such an essential role in the global marketplace, the public demand for more information about the relative safety of different kinds of plastic has been met with a mostly tepid response from manufacturers.

Enter the Plastics Scorecard [6], a new tool that has been designed to evaluate the chemical footprints of these omnipresent materials. As far as I can tell, the Plastics Scorecard represents the first time that anyone has ever tried to bring this level of (you’ll pardon the pun) transparency to plastics. The hope, of course, is that—as with similar tools that are capable of analyzing the chemical footprints ofelectronics [7], cosmetics [8], and cleaning products [9]—the Plastics Scorecard will encourage manufacturers, brand owners, and retailers to reduce industry’s reliance on hazardous chemicals that are, as of right now, such an integral part of plastics production. “We’re trying to lay out a framework that companies could use to make decisions about what would be a safer plastic,” says Mark Rossi, co-director of Clean Production Action (CPA [10]), the Boston-based nonprofit that designed and produced the scorecard.

As Rossi and his colleagues were putting their scorecard through its paces in order to test its efficacy, their findings underscored the scope of the problem. For starters, they learned that there really are no inherently “safe” raw plastics. Five of the ten common plastics that the team evaluated received failing scores—zero out of a possible 100 points—due to the fact that toxic chemicals were used at every single stage of their production. That ignoble group included well-known problem plastics like PVC [11] and styrene [12], but also included lesser-known materials such as polycarbonate (used for compact discs), styrene butadiene rubber (often used for tires and the heels of shoes) and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (found in an array of products, including musical instruments, golf clubs, and Legos).

Even the least hazardous plastic they evaluated—polylactic acid [13] (PLA), the corn-based plastic that’s typically found in compostable foodware—only rated a middling 58 points, according to their scale. The tough ratings reflect the fact, as Rossi put it, “very few chemicals are inherently safe.” Still, dinging PLA, which is a relatively benign material, does raise the question of whether the scorecard is “too challenging,” he admits. (They may revisit the issue in version 2.0 of the scorecard, he adds.)

And as their accompanying report made clear, it’s not only the type of plastic that matters: what you do to it matters, too. Equally implicated in the toxicity profile of any given plastic are many of the additives that give it certain properties the marketplace demands: that make it stronger, or more flame retardant, or more flexible, for example. Often, these are the very chemicals most likely to off-gas or leach out. (Read Full Article)

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