New Statesman – 22 November 1999
Behind the great plastic duck panic
Greenpeace says toys and garden hoses are bad for you. Nonsense, argues James Le Fanu.
Greenpeace is basking in the glow of a spectacular – and well-deserved – triumph. No one, until a few years ago, had ever heard of the difficult to pronounce phthalates (f-thalates), let alone that they are an essential ingredient of virtually everything that is plastic and malleable – children's toys, garden hoses, blood transfusion bags and much, much else besides.
Then, in 1997, Greenpeace raised the alarm. Its Play Safe campaign, launched simultaneously in New York and London to coincide with the pre-Christmas toy-selling boom, warned parents of phthalates' hidden hazards. Little John or Erica might like to splash around in the bath with their yellow plastic ducks, but when – as is their habit – they stuck them in their mouths, the phthalates they contain could leach out to cause liver damage, cancer and – for boys only – low sperm counts.
Now, a mere two years later, the European Commission has approved "a packet of legislative proposals" to ban the use of phthalates in soft toys. Greenpeace's warnings have been vindicated.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace has already turned its attention to banning medical equipment that contains phthalates – including intravenous bags, syringes and catheters. Why, it demands to know in its latest press release, should "a vulnerable population such as patients" be exposed to these "toxic chemicals"? Greenpeace is on a roll, and it is easy to see why. Its battle against phthalates provides the perfect issue around which to mobilise public opinion in defence of innocent children and sick patients against an over-mighty chemical industry. This would be highly commendable were it not that the phthalates scare is nonsense.
Phthalates have been around for the best part of 50 years. During this time, not a single incidence of harm to humans has ever been proved. The case against phthalates rests almost entirely on extrapolation from toxicity tests in rodents: rats that have been fed phthalates have developed a type of liver damage that can give rise to cancer. Phthalates' weak oestrogenic or feminising properties are deemed theoretically capable of damaging the testes and thus contributing to the alleged decline in sperm counts.
This all sounds worrying – until one starts to calculate the levels of exposure necessary to induce these changes. For a child to get near to the sort of doses that damaged rats' livers he would have to eat a sizeable chunk of a plastic toy – at least 50g – every day. As for their oestrogenic properties, many vegetables (including cabbage, carrots and potatoes) also contain naturally occurring "feminising" chemicals.
Nor is that the end of the story. Phthalates also occur naturally in many other foods, including milk, fish, grapes and olive oil. Any traces detectable in human tissue are much more likely to come from this source than from sucking a plastic duck or receiving a blood transfusion.
From all this, any reasonable person might infer that the quantities of "toxic" phthalates to which we are exposed are so minuscule that they don't pose a threat to human health – and that indeed was the verdict of several toxicological conferences held in the sixties and seventies.
The toxicity of phthalates has been a non-issue for the best part of a quarter of a century. So how has Greenpeace resuscitated it with such devastating effect? Bill Durodie, a specialist in European social policy at the London School of Economics, explains how in his illuminating pamphlet, Poisonous Dummies. When Greenpeace launched its Play Safe campaign back in 1997, it claimed to have "first drawn attention" to the "phthalate problem" by issuing a "scientific statement". This actually amounted to no more than a technical note identifying the amounts of phthalates in plastic goods. Next, Greenpeace put pressure on politicians, many of whom had discovered that being environmentally holier-than-thou was a sure road to advancement. Thus, the Austrian consumer affairs minister and the Belgian minister for public health were soon urging retailers to "voluntarily discontinue marketing their products". Simultaneously, the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment (CSTEE) established a working group to study the situation.
Next, according to Durodie, Greenpeace "used the launch of these investigations as a further stick to beat recalcitrant governments and manufacturers", whose failure to act could be portrayed as complacency. They also targeted toy manufacturers with newspaper advertisements to "name and shame" those who had failed to withdraw their dangerous products from the shelves.
Before long the roller-coaster of alarm was in full swing . By January of this year, when the CSTEE concluded its deliberations, phthalate toxicity was no longer a scientific, but rather a social policy, issue.
The impressive firepower that Greenpeace has brought to bear on this issue involved the synergy of three distinct elements: junk science, the rise of gesture politics and the imperative for Greenpeace to maintain a high profile.
There are plenty of genuine environmental problems in the third world, but about these Greenpeace can do nothing. How much easier to focus on the soft target of the threat posed by toxic chemicals to the wealthy citizens of the western world – the very citizens on whose continued financial support their multi-million pound international organisation depends.