Plastic: A Toxic History

I spent part of #PlasticFreeJuly reading Susan Freinkel’s wonderful cultural history of plastic called Plastic: A Toxic Love Story (I’ve started a list on Goodreads for those who want to read books about garbage). The book was illuminating in so many ways. For one thing, I gained insight into so much of what was made out of plastic in my world, what was right in front of my eyes, but I just didn’t notice it. This is one reason I decided to focus on becoming aware of what was plastic in my life since I’m living in an area where I’m not consuming plastic on a regular basis.

life magazine throw away living

Reading her book also reminded me of the deep connections between the toxic substances in our lives–many of which are carcinogenic and/or endocrine disrupting–that stem from World War II. (My dissertation, and later book, Beyond Slash, Burn and Poison: Transforming Breast Cancer Stories into Action bears some of these connections out.) Freinkel tells us:

…shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the director of the board responsible for provisioning the American military advocated the substitution, whenever possible, of plastics for aluminium, brass, and other strategic metals. World War II pulled polymer chemistry out of the lab and into real life. Many of the plastics we know today–polyethylene, nylon, acrylic, Styrofoam–goat their first marching orders during the war. And having ramped up production to meet military needs, industry inevitably had to turn its synthetic swords into plastic plowshares. (11)

In one generation, Freinkel shows us how we plastic became an all-consuming substance in our lives, especially in the U.S. She explains the nature of the substance, how we derive it from petroleum extraction, the science of creating new plastics in the chemical laboratory, and what was most revelatory for me, is the impulse we humans first had to create plastic–which was an environmental concern!:

This New York Times dispatch is more than a hundred and fifty years old, and yet it sounds surprisingly modern: elephants, the paper warned in 1867, were in grave danger of being “numbered with extinct species” because of humans’ insatiable demand for ivory in their tusks. Ivory, at the time, was used for all manner of things, from button-hooks to boxes, piano keys to combs. But one of the biggest uses was for billiard balls. (19)

It wasn’t only the elephant that was at risk of becoming extinct:

The hawksbill turtle, that unhappy supplier of the shell used to fashion combs, was becoming scarcer. Even cattle horn, another natural plastic that had been used by American comb makers since before the Revolutionary War, was becoming less available as ranchers stopped dehorning their cattle. (20)

In other words, the creation and need for plastic emerged because of our concern about the other species on our planet. Of course, we didn’t think, as we should, with the Precautionary Principle in mind and that’s the problem. We didn’t test the substances we were creating in the lab nor did we consider what the long-term consequences might be.

Likewise, the origin of plastic also seems to be a moment when someone was trying to operate his company without producing waste:

Legend has it that one day John D. Rockefeller was looking out over one of his oil refineries and suddenly noticed flames flaring from some smokestacks. “What’s that burning?” he asked, and someone explained that the company was burning off ethylene gas, a byproduct of the refining process. “I don’t believe in wasting anything!” Rockefeller supposedly snapped. “Figure out something to do with it!” That something became polyethylene. (63)

To tell this history of plastic, Freinkel uses one plastic object in each chapter as a way to root the story in some material from our everyday lives; one chapter it’s a comb, another it’s a frisbee, another it’s a chair, and so on.

So many of the corporations involved in the creation of plastic–from the military industrial complex to the pharmaceutical industry–are companies that have contributed to the rising epidemics of cancer in the world; indeed these are some of the same companies (like Britain’s Imperial Chemical Industries, where two chemists discovered polyethylene in 1933, or Dow Chemical, or Union Carbide) that I studied when writing my dissertation sixteen years ago.

Understanding these plastic discoveries and their trajectories as they entered our world helps me to make sense of all those acronyms and labels I see on the plastic bottles I’m recycling, like HDPE, PET, or LDPE, which Freinkel does by weaving such specifics into her engaging stories about her own encounters with plastic, including visiting some of these factories to see what the production process is like, and what effect these companies have on the people who work their and their surrounding environment.

One of the most surprising parts of her book, for me, was to read about the role that plastic has played in medicine–especially for things like catheters, tubing, IV bags. But this is where the Precautionary Principle comes into play in a devastating way:

And here, Short hit on the central paradox of plastic in medicine: in the act of healing, it may also do harm. Research now suggests that the same bags and tubes that deliver medicines and nourishment to the most vulnerable children also deliver chemicals that could damage their health years from now. The vinyl plastic typically used in IV bags and tubing contains a softening chemical that can block production of testosterone and other hormones. This chemical, called a phthalate (pronounced thalate), doesn’t act the way familiar environmental villains such as mercury and asbestos do; for those substances, there’s a direct connection between exposure and easily recognizable subsequent harm, such as cancer or a birth defect or death. Phthalates leave tracks along more complex, convoluted routes. that’s because they play havoc with the body’s endocrine system–the intricate, self-regulating choreography of hormones that dictate how an individual develops, reproduces, ages, fights disease, and even behaves.  Phthalates are not the only chemicals used in common plastics that have disruptive effects. By mimicking or blocking or suppressing production of hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, these various chemicals may produce subtle, long-term effects that don’t show up for years or appear only in our offspring. They may make us more vulnerable to asthma, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, infertility and attention deficit disorder, to name just a few of the health problems that have been linked to various of these chemicals in animal studies and epidemiological surveys. And some of these new substances may do their damage even at minute concentrations we never considered worrisome. (86-87)

And this is one of the most destabilising aspects of plastic, one of the reasons why I don’t want it in my kitchen, especially, touch ing my food and drink. Likewise, there is the problem of chlorine (one of the toxic substances in your disposable menstrual pad that goes on to harm those of us who don’t even use such toxic substances any longer).

PVC is a unique polymer. Unlike other plastics, PVC has chlorine as one of its chief ingredients, a greenish gas that is derived from a salt (sodium chloride). To make PVC, the chlorine is mixed with hydrocarbons to form the monomer vinyl chloride, which is then polymerized, resulting in a fine-grained white powder.

This unusual chemistry is PVC’s greatest strength, but also its greatest problem–the reason that industry sings its praises and that environmentalists call it Satan’s resin. The chlorine base makes PVC chemically stable, fire resistant, waterproof, and cheap (since less oil or gas is needed to produce the molecule). It also makes PVC hazardous to manufacture and nightmare to dispose of, because when incinerated it reales dioxins and furans, two of the most carcinogenic compounds in existence. (88)

Freinkel interviews Theo Colburn for her book, the woman who is responsible for making the problem of endocrine disruption public with her groundbreaking book, Our Stolen Future. And the problem has grown so much worse since the time when I read her book in graduate school:

Many suspected endocrine disrupters interfere with estrogen. However, DEHP, the chemical found in IV bags and tubing, is an antiandrogen, meaning it interferes with testosterone and other masculinizing hormones coursing through the bodies of both men and women. Medical devices may be a significant source of exposure, but most of us come into contact with DEHP through its nonmedical deployment in such vinyl items as shower curtains, wallpaper, venetian blinds, floor tiles, upholstery, garden hoses, swimming pool liners, rainwear, car upholstery and convertible tops, and the sheathing on cables and wires. It’s been found in flip-flops and plastic shoes, modeling clay such as Fimo and Sculpey, yoga mats, cosmetics and nail polish, cleaning products, lubricants, and waxes, not to mention household dust. But our primary exposure is through fatty foods, such as cheese and oils, which are particularly likely to absorb the chemical though its unclear whether that is happening via plastic packaging, the inks used in food wrapping, or during commercial preparation and processing. For instance, DEHP in milk has been traced to the tubing used by dairies.

Such ubiquity means the chemical can get into our systems through almost any route–by inhalation, ingestion, or absorption through the skin. Once the compound enters the bloodstream, it is broken down into smaller molecules, called metabolites. These metabolites are actually the toxic troublemakers. They’re small enough to be absorbed by cells, including, most significantly, cells in the pituitary gland. This pituitary is the Leonard Bernstein of the endocrine system, the gland that conducts the complex symphony of hormonal releases by other glands and cells. DEHP takes a seat and promptly behaves like a wayward violin, introducing discordant sounds that clearly don’t belong. Among other things, its metabolites top the pituitary from producing a hormone that directs the testicles to make testosterone. When that occurs during sensitive periods of development, testosterone levels throughout the body can plummet, which in turn can trigger an avalanche of effects–at least in developing animals. (98-99)

I could go on and on about the amazing, wonderful findings Freinkel shares in her book, but this only takes me 1/3 of the way through it so I’ll leave it to you, dear readers, to pick it up for yourself and see how illuminating it really is. And if this book does make you cut back on plastic, I don’t know what will!


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