Anti-Plastic Agenda: Health Care with Harm

Published October 1, 2000

If your child were critically ill, you’d demand the best medical treatment possible. You’d call not only for the best doctors, but for the best medical technology. After all, a simple kink in the tubing that provides medicine, nutrition, oxygen, and water to your child could prove deadly.

But during the past couple years, a group of self-appointed “consumer activists” has decided you should not have access to best technology. Nor do they think doctors, hospitals, and medical device manufacturers know what medical technology is best for their patients.

These activists are pressing for the phase-out of vinyl medical products, which doctors and hospitals choose because of the enormous benefits these products provide. Activists make unsupported claims that chemicals called phthalates—which are used to make vinyl both soft and strong—pose a serious danger to public health.

Posing as a coalition of mainstream health organizations, Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) is the group leading the charge against vinyl. With radical members ranging from Greenpeace to the Sierra Club, the group is led by the American Nurses Association (ANA).

The ANA carries a name as wholesome as apple pie, but the organization is actually pretty radical. This national nurses union has taken extreme positions that include support for partial birth abortion and Hillary Clinton’s highly unpopular 1993 proposal to overhaul our health care system.

In Poisonous Propaganda, a study recently released by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Bill Durodié documents HCWH’s crusade against vinyl. According to Durodié, the group’s ability to couple junk science with a savvy media and mobilization campaign has trumped decades of scientific research demonstrating the safety and value of vinyl.

By hyping public fears with unsupported allegations, HCWH has pressed hospitals and medical product manufacturers to phase out vinyl products. As a result, medical device manufacturers have come under increasing pressure from shareholders to ban their life-saving products, and some have called for the phase-out of vinyl. Local medical associations have voted on, and some have passed, resolutions to phase out PVC products. And state and local state governments have considered and passed resolutions calling on hospitals to phase out vinyl medical products.

While activists hype risks, the science on vinyl indicates it is safe, effective, and the best product available for the functions it performs.

Vinyl is a key component of thousands of products, including household goods and children’s toys. But its most important contribution is to medical devices. Health care professionals favor vinyl because it is effective, cheap, flexible, and safe. In fact, 25 percent of all medical devices are made with vinyl because of its unique properties: it’s durable, transparent, sterile, and does not kink.

Activists raise red flags because vinyl has caused cancer in some (but not all) lab animals. Yet vinyl has never shown any adverse effects to humans during more than 40 years of use. In February, the World Health Organization downgraded the phthalate used in most medical devices (DEHP) from “possibly carcinogenic to humans” to “not classifiable as to the carcinogenicity to humans”—the same classification it applies to talc, rubbing alcohol, and tea. WHO concluded that studies finding cancer effects in lab animals “were not relevant to humans.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), notoriously cautious about new materials and drugs, has approved vinyl medical products as safe. In fact, vinyl has undergone more scrutiny than its alternatives. That is probably why FDA officials have expressed concerns about efforts to phase out vinyl.

Regarding HCWH’s campaign, a spokesman for the FDA has noted: “We would need to see substantial amounts of testing to make sure we weren’t moving from a product with good characteristics to one that we didn’t know much about.”

Alternatives are also more costly, which means switching will contribute to spiraling health care costs. As with any price hike, the people least able to absorb these costs will be the poor. In places like Africa, which is struggling to pay steep health care costs necessary to treat AIDS and malaria, such costs become a matter of life and death.

For the storage of red blood cells, there isn’t even a reasonable alternative to vinyl. A report that HCWH itself commissioned notes: “To our knowledge, no commercially available substitutes have been identified for PVC [polyvinyl chlorine, the technical name for this vinyl] to date in the storage of red blood cells.” Blood lasts twice as long in vinyl than in alternative containers. In a time of growing national blood shortages, a discussion of phasing out vinyl blood bags is worse than irresponsible.

Health Care Without Harm’s Web site carries the motto “first, do no harm.” They should heed their own advice.

Angela Logomasini is director of risk and domestic environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), and Tracy Wates is an environmental analyst at CEI.