Is life with plastic really fantastic?

Plastic materials - they are everywhere around us, and few of us could imagine our everyday life without them. However, one of the problems with them is that some of them release toxic substances when they are burnt. But not only then - environmentalists say some plastics are toxic for us even as we use them, such as those which contain chemical substances known as phthalates.

"Phthalates are added to PVC plastics. Typically, PVC is a hard, rigid material, so phthalates are added to make the PVC flexible. And what happens is that the phthalates can leak out of the plastic and expose people to the chemical. Phthalates like DEHP are known as reproductive toxics, they damage the testes and they are also potentially toxic to kidneys, liver and the lungs."

Mark Rossi from the international organisation Health Care Without Harm that tries to promote environmentally responsible healthcare. He mentioned PVC, as one example of a plastic that is widely used because of its cheapness and versatility. The toxicity of PVC products is known worldwide and therefore their use has been limited in certain countries.

"And because phthalates are reproductive toxics and they leak out of the plastic, there have been efforts to reduce their use. The European Union has banned the use of phthalates in toys, the Swedish National Chemicals Inspector recommend removing the use of DEHP in medical products and in the United States the Food and Drug Administration recommends not using DEHP in medical applications."

Specifically, phthalates are found in vinyl flooring, packaging, emulsion paint and PVC baby toys. The chemical can leak out of the toys into the mouths of the children who chew them, and that is why PVC toys were banned in the countries of the European Union in 1999, and the Czech Republic followed soon afterwards.

Phthalates are fat soluble, and experts say they should not come into contact with fatty food. However, they have been detected in products such as dried baby milk, cheese, margarine and crisps. According to recent findings of the Czech environmentalist organisation Arnika, certain food products in the Czech Republic come in packaging made of PVC, which contains phthalates.

But even if we consciously tried to avoid these materials in our everyday life, there are situations in which we come in close contact with them, willing or not. Karolina Ruzickova works for the European branch of Health Care Without Harm.

"Healthcare is basically dependent on PVC. It was the first plastic to be used. Its properties are really good because it's flexible and it's really cheap. It basically replaced glass in most cases. It's not only tubing but also bags, such as IV bags or blood bags. You can also find PVC in curtains for patients or in sheets put on the beds, you find it also in the flooring in hospitals. So the exposure to PVC is huge. Seventy-five percent of all the plastics is actually PVC in hospitals."

Of all the people who come into long-term contact with PVC during hospital treatment, some groups are particularly vulnerable. Karolina Ruzickova.

"Healthcare organisations for example in the United States, Canada but also Sweden have identified about three groups. First of all it is infants and unborn children because DEHP is toxic for reproduction especially. But also nursing mothers and pregnant women can actually affect their unborn child. The last group which is quite vulnerable are young boys because DEHP is toxic especially for testicular cells, so it can actually alter the reproductive development of a male. And one more group are patients who are exposed to treatment for a long time, those are patients dependant on dialysis who are actually getting quite an amount of DEHP. The other factor here is that DEHP is a bio-accumulative substance. So it actually accumulates in the body of the mother, so you get exposed to quite a large amount in the hospital but you are already carrying with you some amount of DEHP from your previous life."

Apparently, PVC is easy to replace in medical care by materials which are safe for human health, as Karolina Ruzickova from Health Care Without Harm says.

"There are other types of plastic materials, especially polyethylene and polypropylene, which do not contain any additives of phthalates. And while being burnt, they don't create dioxins. What we are trying to do right now is persuade the hospitals to buy different kinds of plastic materials."

The view on phthalates is not unified, though. While some experts say phthalates are likely to accumulate in body fat and cause harm to our organs, others, for example the American Chemistry Council, say that phthalates do not accumulate in humans or animals. They break down quickly and are excreted from the body and they do not persist in the environment either as they are biodegradable. Some argue that in their long history of service to consumers - phthalates have been used as plasticisers since the 1930's - there has never been any scientifically validated evidence that they have ever caused anyone any harm. Nevertheless, some countries decided to monitor and register the use of phthalates. Mark Rossi from Health Care Without Harm.

"In the United States, manufacturers that use phthalates like DEHP, PBP and DBP, are required to report them under the Toxic Release Inventory, which is the same as your Integrated Toxic Register. So I think it would be important for the Czech Republic, and I recommend this, that companies report their use of phthalates in products and toxic releases to the environment."

The Czech Environment Ministry is indeed preparing a list of pollutants, a database meant to serve the public. I spoke to the Environment Ministry spokesperson Karolina Sulova.

"The government-proposed regulation on the registering of leaks and transfers of pollutants is meant to provide Czech citizens better access to information about toxic substances, greenhouse gases or heavy metals processed or released by factories, steelworks or incineration plants. It is going to be a straightforward information system which will be available on the internet. Companies will gradually fill in their data about leaks and transfers. The current proposal expects companies to start filling in their entries in 2004."

Environment protection is an important issue for the Czech Republic, now firmly on its way to the European Union. In the process of harmonisation of the Czech legal system with EU law, the country accepted many regulations on environment protection. The integrated register of pollutants is one of the products of this process.

"It is stipulated by law. European Union countries use similar registers. Last month the Czech Republic signed the Kiev Protocol which requires this country to create such a register listing a minimum of eighty-six substances. The proposal contains two inventories. The first one will list eighty-eight substances, and phthalates are not included. The second list, which should come into effect in 2007, contains 123 substances, including phthalates."

On one side, phthalates are suspect to cause cancer, damage the liver and kidneys, harm the development of reproductive organs, and interfere with development by acting similarly to the sex hormone oestrogen. Others argue that the risk posed by phthalates is minimal, since dosage levels are low, and you can also come across the opinion that there are significant health benefits related to the use of these substances. For those of us who are not experts on chemistry, it may be impossible to find the truth, but debates such as this one might make us pay more attention to what it is we actually eat, drink and use in our everyday life, and push manufacturers to label their products more responsibly.