“We have had plastics for 50 years, if they were bad for our health, we would know by now!”
Heard that before? I bet you have. Probably from somebody that represents a financial interest in the plastics industry, a lobbyist perhaps. Don’t worry, it is a standard catch-cry straight from the pages of history, and it is as transparent as a pane of glass.
History is replete with examples of industry representatives and mouthpieces obfuscating the narrative to create doubt, challenge advancing science, and ultimately perpetuate the market dominance of their product. One example is the orchestrated campaign to dis-prove the enormously detrimental health impacts of tetraethyl lead used ubiquitously for decades in fuel around the globe. Ever noticed that pump that says ‘unleaded’? There is a reason for that – sensible data backed science won out in the end. But not without a fight and a strategic effort by enormous industry interests to silence the voices that posed a risk to their profits.
The same tactics were employed by the merchants of doubt engaged by the tobacco industry, the asbestos industry, the fossil fuel industry and even today in the PFAS “forever chemicals” industry. The list is extensive and the examples depressing. Very smart people who are tasked with protecting profits at all cost, even at the expense of human health, are to be thanked for these examples.
There is some validity to the statement that plastic has been around for fifty years with no measured health impact, sure. But only to the extent that for the last fifty years science has not really had the capability to ask the questions of the chemicals used in plastics to discern the truth. We knew some of the answers, some we had our suspicions about, but many we did not.
Toxicological assessment, assessing health risks, and demonstrating a cause-and-effect relationship between specific chemicals and outcomes is challenging. In many instances it can’t be done. We are reliant on ‘best evidence’ scenarios. This is why, for so long, we have struggled to make clear connections.
That is great for the counter-narrative proponents: no data = no problem = no action. I add to that: = ensured ongoing profits.
But science is rapidly advancing, technology is bounding along at breakneck pace, and the answers to the questions that need to be asked are finally emerging. And the industry doesn’t like it. It is, for many industry aficionados, time to trudge through the archives and replicate the lies of the past. The problem is, that tried and tested method is also consistently demonstrated to fail.
What kind of person can argue that burning a pile of rubbish in an open waste dump surrounded by children playing, food crops and an open water source is in any way conducive to maintaining positive health outcomes? Even without scientific data, surely this must trigger some kind of moral questioning?
I have no doubt that it does. Executives must get the nervous farts when the conversation turns to ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance), particularly around audit time. How do you legitimise ESG outcomes when your product, somewhere in the lifecycle, is potentially propagating endocrine cancer in a 5-year-old? But profits and shareholder investment are held in higher esteem in the corporate boardrooms of New York than the life of village children thousands of miles away. Stealing the health of a child without creating outrage is all part a day’s work in the world of big business. Peddling a narrative of doubt is critical to that strategy.
Not everybody in the plastic industry is using the same playbook though. Some have actually recognised the potential problems caused by plastic chemicals and are working to change what they can, where they can, and that should be recognised.
As I always say, plastic is necessary in the modern world. So many important technologies depend on plastic. I have no issue with plastic itself. The plastics industry is one that we all need, but with limitation. I take issue with the way plastic is managed as a resource, how manufactures seem to have little care for what happens at the end of life, and most critically, the profit-protecting nonsense that is spewed by industry apologetics defending what can’t be defended.
So, if you are somebody who argues that because plastic has been around for 50 years and we don’t see any human health effects, please, stop taking the piss. You know the science, and you know the game you are playing. Stop commenting on forums, stop grandstanding, stop mansplaining and stop pretending that your transparent attempts to deceive the general populace have a right to be aired. It is tiresome, boring, and actually damaging to the very industry you are trying to protect.