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Politically Incorrect Plastic

Software giant Microsoft announced this week that it plans to stop using packaging material made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic by the end of the year – giving new life to a health scare that I thought had been squelched years ago.

“Those PVC clamshell packs that protect new copies of Microsoft Office Excel, PowerPoint, Word and other products fall short when it comes to protecting the environment and human health. That’s why Microsoft is phasing out the popular but potentially hazardous PVC in favor of more eco-friendly alternatives,” Microsoft announced on Dec. 7.

Microsoft said on its Web site that it began a project to eliminate PVC from its packaging in 2004 and then, in 2005, it “partnered” with a group known as the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) to address “the PVC problem.”

The truth of the matter is that “the PVC problem” is merely a creation of CHEJ’s opportunistic pressure campaign against Microsoft and other businesses that started in 2004.

CHEJ’s sanctimonious name camouflages its real agenda -- anti-chemical and anti-nuclear activism. The group was started by Lois Gibbs, the pseudo-martyr of the unfortunate but over-hyped environmental mess at Love Canal 27 years ago. [Contrary to popular eco-lore, there were no documented human health effects from chemical exposures at Love Canal, where houses and a school were constructed near a former municipal and chemical dump.]

One of CHEJ’s projects is to pressure corporations to stop using PVC -- a plastic made with the politically incorrect element chlorine -- that has a wide variety of uses ranging from soft plastic toys to construction materials. The anti-PVC campaign is at least two-decades old and is part of the anti-chlorine campaign led by Greenpeace.

CHEJ says that “When produced or burned, PVC plastic releases dioxins, the most potent synthetic chemicals ever tested, which can cause cancer and harm the immune and reproductive systems. Studies have shown plasticizers such as phthalates have migrated out of PVC consumer products, exposing people to toxic additives linked to reproductive defects and other health problems.”

But no scientific evidence has ever credibly linked PVC, dioxins or phthalates with harm to human health. U.S. regulatory agencies repeatedly have underscored that fact.

Despite more than 40 years of use in medical equipment such as IV bags and medical tubing, there have been no reports of such phthalate use causing human health effects, according to a 2002 report by the Food and Drug Administration.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) denied a 1998 petition by Greenpeace to ban the use of PVC in soft vinyl toys. CPSC Commissioner Mary Sheila Gail stated at the time, “Consumers may have a high level of assurance that soft plastic products pose no risk to children.”

Despite decades and billions of dollars spent researching dioxin, the Environmental Protection Agency still has not definitively linked dioxins with human health effects, according to its most recent report. This is really not surprising since dioxin-expert Dr. Michael Gough and I debunked the dioxin scare in 1999 with our study showing that a single serving of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream contained as much as 200 times the amount of dioxin as the “safe” level set by the EPA – and no one frets over any alleged “toxics” in Ben & Jerry’s.

That U.S. regulatory agencies have refused to ban PVC, dioxin and phthalates, however, is precisely why Microsoft – as well as Wal-Mart, Hewlett-Packard, Crabtree & Evelyn, Kaiser-Permanente and many other companies – have been targeted by CHEJ to stop using PVC.

If the activists can’t get what they want from through the democratic, political and regulatory processes, then they will simply coax, cajole or coerce businesses into implementing their agendas.

These corporate cave-ins are quite craven when you think about it. Regulatory agencies that are chock-full of experts on PVC, dioxins and phthalates -- and that often regulate substances virtually at the drop of a hat -- have decided not to take regulatory action against these substances. The companies, however, have no known expertise on these substances and, yet, have decided (albeit under pressure) to declare them unsafe.

CHEJ’s theory, I suspect, is that if enough private companies can be pressured to join the anti-PVC bandwagon, PVC will eventually become so politically incorrect that no one will dare use it -- thereby causing a de facto ban of a perfectly legal and safe material.

And what does Microsoft care if the PVC scare is junk science-based?

After all, it easily can substitute cardboard or a non-chlorine plastic for PVC and pass any incremental costs on to its suppliers or customers -- thereby ridding themselves of pesky activists in a cost-effective manner while perhaps scoring some public relations kudos at the same time for being “eco-friendly.” It’s a no-brainer -- or is it?

The role of business in society is to create the products, services, jobs and wealth that fuel our (enviably high) standard of living. Businesses are not some sort of back-up or alternative government to be harnessed by social activists who have failed to implement their social and political agendas through the traditional public political process.

But it seems that corporate managers increasingly are becoming confused about their mission and are allowing external activists to define what constitutes the “social responsibility” of business. Indeed, Microsoft’s vice president for corporate affairs told the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 7, “We should do what’s in our control to do.”

Fair enough. So how about just sticking with making software that the public wants to buy and leaving chemical regulation to the experts?

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com, is adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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