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Communicating the science of plasticisers

By John Osborne
Posted 8 February 2013

Delegates to the Plasticisers Conference, organised by European Plastics News in association with the European Council for Plasticisers and Intermediates (ECPI), heard that controlling the information surrounding plasticisers is becoming harder.

As Brussels is the place where so much of the European Union’s (EU) official work is done it was fitting that discussions about how plasticisers may affect the health of EU citizens was held in the city.

However, one of the themes of the conference, which last December, was that although communication is so much easier and methods more reliable than they were 20 or 30 years ago, much appears to be getting lost in translation.

Delegates heard that although the ECPI is continuing to communicate using traditional print and broadcast media, it could arguably make more effective use of digital and social media, for example Wikipedia, as legislators and policy makers are increasingly influenced by social media providers.

The ECPI faces a considerable challenge as corporate and trade association websites which should, in theory, be the most accurate and reliable source of technical information, are often updated after social media sites. Increasingly, Wikipedia is the first place many people go to when looking for generic information.

ECPI’s general manager, Maggie Saykali, is seeing an improvement. She said: “The differentiation between the various phthalates is gaining understanding and acceptance. In the future, we have to consolidate what we have already achieved.

“We must continue working on our research, providing scientific and factual information to the stakeholders and speaking with one voice to promote the great benefits plasticisers and flexible PVC bring to the general public”.

Another area which is proving problematic is skewed science reporting, especially over the term “endocrine disruptors."

The term is often taken to mean synthetic chemicals that mediate hormonal activity in the human body but Prof essorAlan Boobis of Imperial College, London, pointed out that scientists disagree about its precise meaning.

Boobis said that “a lot of scientists are unhappy with the term”, adding this “is a communications battle we have lost”. He said that both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), acting on behalf of the Commission, are currently reviewing the area.

Controversy about the use of the term “endocrine disruptors” is just one small aspect of the science associated with plasticisers. Delegates also heard that the industry is concerned about the effects of chemicals used in plasticisers on all parts of the human body, and how these effects are seen by the general public.

One way to counter the industry’s critics is to adopt a bolder approach. In a presentation promoting the benefits of flexible PVC (approximately 90% of world production of plasticisers is thought to go into PVC) Roger Mottram, group environmental and regulatory affairs manager at Ineos Chlor-Vinyl, argued that the plasticisers industry has become too defensive. He said that industry should be promoting more vigorously the benefits of its products.

Mottram said the industry has “endured attacks from environmental pressure groups for many years”; that it has “come under intense scrutiny from regulatory bodies worldwide”; and that its products “appear on blacklists”.

He argued that the industry should move from being seen to doing good rather than harm.

Mottram said: “It is more difficult to promote plasticisers (and other additives) than it is to promote the primary material (PVC), but we can highlight how a particular additive enables beneficial PVC product attributes."

One way of breaking the communications deadlock is to emphasise the healthy demand for the material in developing countries and to point out that the benefits are understood. Michael Smith, director of chlor-alkali and PVC at IHS Chemical, presented a paper looking at the economic outlook. He said there is considerable demand for the material in China, India, and Russia.

It may be hard to counter criticism of plasticisers but the industry appears convinced it can win the battle for hearts and minds.

(See Hamish Champ's latest blog on this subject.)


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