Our 'Toxic' Love-Hate Relationship With Plastics Science writer Susan Freinkel chronicles the rise of plastic in consumer culture — and its effects on the environment and our health — in Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. Freinkel says plastics leach potentially harmful chemicals into our bloodstream — and that scientists are now figuring out what that does to our bodies.
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Our 'Toxic' Love-Hate Relationship With Plastics

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Our 'Toxic' Love-Hate Relationship With Plastics

Our 'Toxic' Love-Hate Relationship With Plastics

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We all know that plastics are common in modern life, but our guest, Susan Freinkel, says they're really everywhere: in our toothbrushes, hairdryers, cell phones, computers, door knobs, car parts and, of course, in those ubiquitous plastic bags we get just about every time we buy anything.

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

Freinkel's new book, "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story," chronicles the rise of plastics in consumer culture and its effects on the environment and our health. For example, she notes that plastics have had enormously beneficial effects, like making blood transfusions safe and common, but scientists are also finding that chemicals from blood and IV bags are leaching into the fluids we take into our bodies.

Susan Freinkel is a science writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Discover, Smithsonian and other publications. She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.


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

Ms. SUSAN FREINKEL (Author, "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story"): Right. I didn't think through the idea very hard, which is why I walked into the bathroom that morning and looked down, and there is my plastic toilet seat. So I had to change my plan, and instead of spending the day not touching anything plastic, I decided I would spend the day writing down everything I touched that was plastic.

And by the end of the day, my notebook was filled with pages and pages of plastic things - things that I went into the experiment knowing were plastic, you know, like the sandwich bags, but then things I never imagined were plastic like the doorknob of my front door, which I thought was brass but when I looked closely I realized was plastic.

I didn't really understand how my life had become so permeated by plastic, and I realized I didn't know the first thing about this stuff. I didn't know what plastic was, where it came from or whether there were reasons to be concerned about it. And I figured if I was asking those questions, probably other people were, too.

DAVIES: Give us a layman's understanding of what plastic is, chemically.

Ms. FREINKEL: Well, you know, we talk about plastic like it's one thing, but plastic is really - plastics are a huge family of materials. There are thousands of different plastics. And in many ways, they're as different from one another as paper can be from glass.

So in plastic, I call them daisy chains. They're giant molecules that are hooked together like daisy chains. And another way to imagine them is like a string of beads. And how those beads are arranged, what the beads actually are, how they're strung on that string, how the strings are arranged with one another can affect what a plastic looks like, how it behaves, how it feels.

What these all have in common, though, is that they're polymers. They're these gigantic molecules, these long daisy chains. And as I said, you can get them having very different properties.

So take for instance something like nylon. You know, nylon can be stretchy like in pantyhose. It can be silky like a parachute. It can be bristly like the end of your toothbrush. Or it can be a solid, smooth material like the wheels of a roller skate, or bushy like Velcro.

You know, plastic has this kind of pejorative connotation, but it's pretty amazing that we've managed to make this family of materials that has so many different properties and that we can engineer, kind of, to do and be exactly what we want them to be.

DAVIES: Now, why was the development of plastics driven, in part, by the oil industry?

Ms. FREINKEL: Well, plastics come from the byproducts that are produced in the refining of oil or the processing of natural gas. Actually, in this country, most plastics come from natural gas.

And those processes throw off these byproducts which, you know, could just be wasted. But really, since the early 20th century, the petroleum and chemical industries got very good at taking these byproducts and reprocessing them, in a sense, to create new products like raw plastics.

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

Ms. FREINKEL: Sure. You know, I'll give you the example of ethylene, which is a byproduct of oil refining. There is a sort of legend that Nelson Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, was looking out over his, you know, vast refinery complex and saw flares burning off some gas.

And he said, you know: What is that? What is that that we're burning off? And somebody said: Well, that's ethane. And he said: ethane - which is a precursor to ethylene - well, I don't want to waste that. I don't want to waste anything. And, you know, the - well, let's figure out something to do with it. And that something turned out to be ethylene, which is now used to make polyethylene.

DAVIES: And so what did they do? You have a gas that's being vented from the stack of a refinery. Is it captured and then cooled so that it becomes a liquid, and then, what, turned into a plastic resin or something?

Ms. FREINKEL: Well, that makes it sounds like a really simple process. And, you know, when I went to go visit Dow Chemical's polyethylene plant in Freeport, Texas, that very simple process that you just described takes place over miles and miles of pipes, stretching out over acres.

And basically what happens is the ethylene is piped in a series of pipes and subjected to different ranges of pressures and temperatures, and different other gases are fed in with it. And eventually they all go into this thing called the reactor, which I had envisioned was going to be like some lab with, you know, bubbling flasks and vats, but actually was this huge, two-story room with these gigantic pipes - looping up and down, floor to ceiling.

And at the start of that room, where the gases first go in, they go in at the start of the room, and then other chemicals are fed in to trigger a chemical reaction that will cause the gases to hook together into these daisy chains and become liquid. And out the other end comes polyethylene.

I couldn't see any of that, but I was walking along the outside of the reactor chamber, and all of a sudden, I realized I smelled plastic. It was like sticking my nose in the - you know, in an empty bottle of milk, or jug of milk.

And then I looked around on the floor, and suddenly I could see these little clumps of this waxy, white stuff that was raw polyethylene.

DAVIES: So just to simplify to the beginning and the end, this gas that's being thrown off by a refinery is turned into what? What is it used for?

Ms. FREINKEL: The gas is turned into, essentially, liquid plastic that then is extruded into tiny little pellets that look like rice grains. And those are sort of the raw material from which plastic products are made.

DAVIES: And which plastic products come from - is it polyethylene?

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

DAVIES: You say the dawn of the age of plastics was 1941. Why?

Ms. FREINKEL: What happened in 1941 is that the guy who was in charge of provisioning the U.S. military at the outset of World War II started requisitioning plastic to replace strategic metals that were really needed.

And that led to a huge ramping-up of plastics production. A lot of plastics had been discovered and invented in the '20s and '30s but hadn't really made their way into major production. And it was kind of the military needs of the war that got those plastics going strong.

DAVIES: And what military supplies were they used to make?

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

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

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

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

Ms. FREINKEL: Well, that was something that started really early on with plastics. And I tell this story of the comb as an example of that. Now, combs in the mid-19th century were often made from things like tortoiseshell or ivory. But by the mid-19th century, people were beginning to get worried that both ivory and tortoiseshell were becoming in short supply because the animals were being sort of hunted into extinction.

And that actually was a goad to the development of early plastics. One of the big uses of ivory was for billiard balls, and a billiard-ball manufacturer in the 1860s put an ad offering $10,000 for anybody who could come up with a viable substitute for ivory.

That ad caught the eye of an inventor in New York named John Wesley Hyatt, who was kind of an amateur inventor, and he started looking at ways to develop an adequate substitute. And what he actually ended up coming up with was the early plastic celluloid, which was made from cellulose - actually from cotton.

And one of the first uses - or common uses - for celluloid was combs because you could take celluloid and make it look like any kind of valuable material. It was really good - it was very easy to make it look like tortoiseshell or to make it look like ivory, and indeed that was what was done.

And so you had sort of these exquisite combs that looked like they'd come, you know, from tortoiseshell or ivory, it looked like they cost a fortune, but actually, you know, you could get them for quite cheap, and anybody could have one.

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

Ms. FREINKEL: In the early days, people were enthralled. I mean, imagine something like cellophane, this clear material. People loved cellophane so much that in the '40s, it was - the word itself was considered the third-most-beautiful in the English language, after mother and memory.

I think, you know, people continued to love it until they started seeing it being increasingly used for schlocky kinds of things, you know, like lawn flamingos.

There was a fiasco in the early '60s when DuPont tried to develop a synthetic leather, Corfam, and, you know, touted it as good as leather, but, you know, it really didn't work very well.

And so, you know, by the time I was coming, growing up in the '70s, plastic had pretty much become a cultural joke. It was the punch line to the movie "The Graduate."

You know, when I was writing this book, almost every single person who I told I was working on a book about plastic invariably mentioned that line. You know, 40 years later, it still resonates.

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

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer Susan Freinkel. She's written a new book about the ubiquitous presence of plastics in our lives and some of the effects thereof. It's called "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story."

You take us through some commonly manufactured plastic items like the single-form chair, of which there are probably billions made and sold cheaply. The Frisbee is another one you write about.

But I wanted to talk about some of the uses in medicine. And it was interesting that it had a powerful effect on modern medicine, right? I mean, it really allowed scientists to do things that they couldn't do before.

Ms. FREINKEL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, plastic, you couldn't have modern medicine without plastic, you know, going back to the in the '40s, when Willem Kolff invented the first kidney dialysis machine, using cellophane, in fact, and said: What God didn't grow, man can make.

I was reminded of that recently when my mother broke her hip, and I was looking at the hospital and looking all around at all the plastics in her room from, you know, the machinery monitoring her oxygen levels to the actual replacement hip in her body.

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

Ms. FREINKEL: Okay, I tell the story of the blood bag, and I chose that object because it's made out of vinyl, and it was something that I think perfectly kind of illustrates the benefits and problems of plastic in medicine.

Blood, up until the '50s, really, to the extent that blood collection took place, it was in glass bottles. If you went to get blood drawn, up until the 1950s, you know, they would use a steel needle, and the blood would be taken out through that needle, through rubber tubing, into a glass bottle with a rubber stopper.

It didn't work very well. The blood cells were damaged in the process. And of course, those glass bottles were breakable. It wasn't a great system.

And in the 1950s, a Boston surgeon named Carl Walter started looking for a better way. And he came up with the idea of using one of the new plastics that was out, vinyl, as a way to collect and store blood. And he invented the vinyl blood bag.

And, in fact, you know, to prove its advantages to colleagues, he took it with him to a meeting filled with blood and stepped on it to show them, you know, this is really unbreakable.

And it was a huge technical advantage. You know, you had bottles not only that wouldn't break, but they made it possible to store blood more safely, to collect it more safely and to separate out the components in a sort of sterile, secure fashion so that a single unit of blood could go - instead of just going to one patient could go to three. So it was a great, great development.

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

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

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

Ms. FREINKEL: Well, vinyl, the plastic vinyl, is made from a plastic called PVC. And on its own, PVC is a pretty rigid and brittle plastic. The way that you make it into something soft and pliable that you can use for, say, a blood bag or an IV bag is by adding in sort of oily chemicals called phthalates and, in particular, one called DEHP.

The problem is that DEHP doesn't really bond with the plastic. And it's -remember I compared earlier a polymer to a long strand, well, imagine those long strands, and then the DEHP is like little snips of spaghetti, say. It comes out really easily, and it leaches out easily. It leaches into the blood that's contained in the blood bag. It particularly will leach out if there's a fatty liquid present.

But we've known since the early '70s that DEHP leaches out of vinyl, and the way that we know is that there were a pair of scientists at that time who were doing some experiments with rat livers. It doesn't really matter what they were trying to do.

But they kept finding this weird, strange compound that was fouling up their experiments, and when they set out to figure out what it was, they discovered it was DEHP. And they were very surprised because everybody had assumed that this is, you know, an inert material.

They then did a bunch of research, and, you know, they came to the conclusion that this was not harmful, that this was fine for human health except under some very, very particular and rare circumstances.

Fast-forward about 20 year, in the late '90s, our understanding about sort of toxicology has changed, and a couple of things had happened. One is that there was sort of a new science discovering that some chemicals don't work like traditional toxins.

They - instead of sort of there being kind of a straight line of exposure to something like, you know, birth defects or cancer, these chemicals act in a sort of more convoluted and complicated way.

They interfere with our hormones, and they interfere with the endocrine system, which is the network of glands that orchestrate growth and development. And there's some research done showing that DEHP, this chemical that's in vinyl, has this property. It interferes with testosterone.

Most people aren't exposed to those kinds of levels, even in hospital settings where you are, you know, being transfused for a long time, or a little baby is being transfused for a long time. It's not approaching those levels. It is more subtle, probably. But we don't know what the safe level is.

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

Ms. FREINKEL: There are alternatives. There's kind of - actually, it's a huge and growing area. And that's the irony and frustrating thing to me, to be honest.

Vinyl, polyvinyl chloride, there are alternatives for that in medicine, and there are actually companies who are using them. B. Braun, for instance, went into the market with the deliberate mission of finding alternative materials. So they make IV bags and tubes out of things like polyethylene and polypropylene or silicon tubes.

The problem is these are more expensive, and so for cash-strapped hospitals, you can understand why they may be reluctant to go with an alternative when they don't even completely know whether it's okay.

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

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with science writer Susan Freinkel about her new book "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story." It's about how dependent we've become on plastic - it's in nearly everything - and the hazards some plastics pose to the environment and the human body.

When we left off, Freinkel was talking about the vinyl bags and tubes used for blood transfusions in IV medicines, which scientists discovered are actually leaching chemicals into those fluids.

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

Ms. FREINKEL: You know, the chemical industry basically maintains that this stuff is safe, that the argument about phthalates, for instance, is they've been in use for 50 years; there's no evidence of widespread human problems and therefore, what's the issue? And, you know, the vinyl industry has its own trade association, which rebuts studies. The American Chemistry Council is very quick to rebut any negative studies that come out. And, you know, they are right. The science on this is still uncertain. It is still evolving. We are looking at a whole new world of risks.

But, you know, I talked to one researcher who pointed out that, you know, there are similarities between the way the chemical industry responds to a lot of the studies that are suggesting problems and the way the tobacco industry defended tobacco for 50 years. You know, it's hard to make a slam dunk showing that these things are dangerous. You make that case through epidemiological studies and through animal studies and, you know, you very carefully piece it together.

Any time you get an epidemiological study suggesting a correlation between exposure to a phthalate or bisphenol A, for instance, and a health outcome, the chemical industry quickly points out that this is just a correlation. There's no evidence of direct cause-and-effect. That's true. That's what epidemiological studies do, but they are the gold standard for determining public health hazards. And this was the same strategy that was used by the tobacco companies when they were trying to fight growing evidence that tobacco causes lung cancer. It's been called a strategy of selling doubt.

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

Ms. FREINKEL: Unlike pesticides or drugs, there's no real explicit government regulation of plastics. We have a very fragmented and fairly ineffective patchwork of laws to regulate synthetic chemicals. The central regulation there is something called the Toxic Substances Control Act, which was passed in 1976.

People's criticisms of that law are that it has tended to treat chemicals as safe until proven to be dangerous. But the way that the law is written is very difficult to establish that a chemical is dangerous because manufacturers do not have to volunteer information about that, and the EPA is - the Environmental Protection Agency is fairly hamstrung in its ability to collect information.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

DAVIES: And you mentioned polyethylene, that's what? The...

Ms. FREINKEL: Polyethylene, that's the stuff of like plastic baggies.

DAVIES: The grocery bags, right? Yeah.

Ms. FREINKEL: Grocery bags. Sort of a film, that film plastic. But we know that hazardous chemicals are used in plastics and we know that some of those plastics will leach chemicals that may be harmful to our health, and we don't know the full extent of that.

I'll give you an example, which is PET - polyethylene terephthalate. It's the plastic that's used in soda bottles and water bottles, another plastic that we have for decades considered an inert plastic. Well, in recent years, there have been several studies showing that PET can leach some kind of compound that seems to have estrogenic activity - that seems to act like an estrogen. We don't know what that compound is. We don't know whether it's being leached in sufficient quantities to have any impact on human health.

The fact that we're suddenly discovering it is a little disconcerting. You know, that said, I think those kinds of findings are why we need to have stronger laws that require manufacturers to demonstrate the safety of chemicals that they put into commerce, because we don't want to be finding these things out decades after the fact.

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

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

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Susan Freinkel. She's written a new book about the presence and effects of plastic in our lives. It's called "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story."

Have there been problems with plastics leaching from baby bottles?

Ms. FREINKEL: The plastic that used to be used to make baby bottles is polycarbonate. It's a hard, clear, glass-like plastic and one of the main ingredients in that is a chemical called bisphenol A, which is an estrogen mimic. If you look at a diagram of that molecule, it looks just like an estrogen molecule. And bisphenol A has been associated with a bunch of health problems, including obesity, breast cancer, heart disease and others. And so, you know, when research about bisphenol A started coming out, you know, people, parents especially were understandably horrified at the thought that the bottles that they were using to feed their babies could potentially be leaching this chemical into their babies.

You'd be hard-pressed to buy a baby bottle now that contains BPA. You know, this is one of those instances where the government didn't step in but Walmart did and, you know, the big-box stores won't carry BPA bottles. I actually was in San Diego a couple of years ago and saw this display of sports water bottles, which also used to be made of polycarbonate, and they were, these things that usually costs like $15 were marked down to a dollar because they still had bisphenol A in them.

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

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

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

This is just kind of depressing, isn't it? I mean, is there a way to produce and use less of this stuff?

Ms. FREINKEL: I think there is. I think that we are going to have to. I mean part of the reason you're looking at two trillion pounds is that we're exporting not just, you know, good plastic consumer goods to the developing countries, but also a kind of throwaway culture, and that's really what we have to get away from. Half of the plastics made now are for throwaway items and that is the biggest and sort of most troubling use of plastic, because a lot of those are just trivial things that we don't need and which, you know, end up in swaths of the world's oceans.

I think that the changes that are going to have to take place in the way that we deal with plastic are changes that are going to have to come from everyone with a stake in the future of plastics. So that means, you know, manufacturers are going to have to be thinking more carefully about the way they make plastics, the chemicals that are used in them, the kinds of applications they have. And we as consumers have to take responsibility and look more carefully and thoughtfully at the way that we use plastics.

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

Ms. FREINKEL: Thank you, Dave.

GROSS: Susan Freinkel spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Her new book is called "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward reviews the new box set "The Bristol Sessions, 1927 to '28." The sessions gave Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family their commercial debuts. This is FRESH AIR.

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