RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In a Texas courtroom this week, scientists and lawyers will debate the safety of plastics. Specifically, they'll be arguing about whether one major brand of plastics contains chemicals that can act like the hormone estrogen and perhaps cause health problems. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on how this scientific question ended up in court.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: A few years ago, some consumers began avoiding plastic products made with a chemical called BPA. BPA can act a bit like estrogen, though it's not clear whether people are affected by the small amount that comes from plastic. Concern about BPA turned out to be a good thing for Eastman Chemical. It had begun selling plastic resins called Tritan that are marketed as not only BPA-free, but free of any estrogen-like activity. Then in 2011, scientists from two small companies in Austin, Texas published a study that challenged Eastman's claim. George Bittner is the founder of both companies and a professor at the University of Texas.
GEORGE BITTNER: Tritan had come out and our tests had shown that it had EA, estrogenic activity.
HAMILTON: It wasn't just Tritan. The study found that nearly all of the plastic products, things like water bottles and food containers, had estrogenic activity. And that provided an opportunity for Bittner and his two companies. One is called CertiChem. It tests plastic products for estrogenic activity. The other is PlastiPure, which helps manufacturers make plastic products with no estrogenic activity. Bittner says he knew the study would be controversial.
BITTNER: We certainly thought the results were not going to be greeted with favor by some plastic manufacturers.
HAMILTON: And sure enough Eastman Chemical denounced the study. Then last year it sued CertiChem and PlastiPure, saying the companies were marketing their own services by making false or misleading statements about Tritan. So this week Eastman and the two companies are scheduled to face off in a U.S. District Court in Austin. Bittner predicts the trial will reveal a lot about Tritan.
BITTNER: By bringing suit, Eastman Chemical has effectively put its Tritan product on trial.
HAMILTON: Eastman wouldn't comment for this story. But in an interview last year, vice president Lucian Boldea said Bittner's study used a test for estrogenic activity that can produce false positives.
LUCIAN BOLDEA: So to misrepresent a screening test as conclusive evidence is what we have the issue with.
HAMILTON: Bittner says his study included a second test that ruled out false positives. Rebecca Tushnet, a law professor at Georgetown, says testimony about tests for estrogenic activity will be crucial in the trial.
REBECCA TUSHNET: I think it really depends what the evidence shows about these tests. And that really is a matter for experts.
HAMILTON: Some of the evidence may prove embarrassing to Eastman. Court documents show that an apparently independent study that appears to vindicate Tritan was actually paid for by Eastman, even though that wasn't disclosed in the published article. Georgetown's Tushnet says this is a case with complex and competing scientific arguments. And she says even when the science is less nuanced, it can be overwhelming for judges and juries.
TUSHNET: Courts have a very ambiguous relationship to science. So sometimes they really defer to it and sometimes they are really skeptical of it. So it can be hard to predict what's going to happen in any particular case.
HAMILTON: If Eastman prevails, it will probably mean the end of PlastiPure and CertiChem. Mike Usey, the CEO of PlastiPure, says the suit has already caused big problems for them.
MIKE USEY: More than half the people that were at CertiChem and PlastiPure before the suit are now gone.
HAMILTON: Even so, Usey says he's optimistic about the company's future.
USEY: One of the good things that should come out of this suit is that more consumer awareness of what the real issues are and what solutions are immediately available today.
HAMILTON: And the suit indicates that the public debate is no longer just about BPA but whether plastics contain any chemicals with enough hormonal activity to affect consumers. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.