Originally Published April 2000
There Is (Still) a Great Future in Plastics, but Maybe Not in PVC
Science has its limits, as the saying goes, but the demarcation used to be spiritual matters or metaphysics. The boundaries are shifting, however, and even research traditionally within the scientific domain is being challenged. One recent example is the PVC issue.
Greenpeace and Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) have succeeded in alerting the public to the perceived health and environmental hazards of PVC, a dominant material in the fabrication of medical disposables. Environmentalists have pointed to the disposal of PVC by incineration as a source of dioxin contamination. Advancing from the other flank, HCWH objects to the use of the plasticizer DEHP, which is used to make PVC flexible, because it may be a human carcinogen and endocrine disrupter. DEHP has been shown to leach from IV bags and tubing, and HCWH argues that if it migrates into the patient, DEHP could damage the heart, liver, testes, and kidneys and adversely affect fetal development and reproduction.
Imagine that on the nightly news! It's certainly a sexier topic, to use newsroom lingo, than reporting on an independent panel of scientists headed by C. Everett Koop that gave a clean bill of health to the softeners used in PVC.
Not surprisingly, the Koop report's impact has been underwhelming. Since its release, Tenet Healthcare and Baxter have announced that they will encourage the development and use of alternative materials to PVC in their healthcare products. (See the article "PVC Defections Continue" in this issue.) Now that has gotten industry's attention.
"Do we really have a choice?" asks one material and process engineer who works for a competitor of Baxter's. "We need to make the move away from PVC," he says, adding that within five to seven years, his company will produce all of its IV bags with alternate materials. German manufacturer Sengewald Verpackungen supplies a coextruded polypropylene film as an alternative to PVC in medical fluid bags. The Propyflex material has garnered widespread recognition and was recently named a finalist in the Medical Design Excellence Awards organized by Canon Communications. Several other companies, many of them European, have launched alternative materials. The European Commission has also weighed in on the debate: it recently banned the use of phthalates in some children's toys and is currently conducting a horizontal cradle-to-grave life cycle study of PVC in nonmedical applications. If you're inclined to think that this is just one more example of European hypersensitivity with little resonance in the United States, I would humbly suggest that you think again. Remember how genetically modified food suddenly became a hot potato in the United States after European consumers raised a fuss?
The writing is on the tubing wall. Although PVC continues to dominate the disposables market, its share is gradually being eroded by polyolefin-based systems, according to a recent report published by Frost & Sullivan. The report notes that the market share of PVC has declined from 58.1% of unit shipments in 1995 to 55.5% in 1998. By 2005, the report predicts, PVC will account for 47.7% of total unit shipments of plastic in medical disposables.
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