Green medical devices: ideology, not science

Contrary to the common trend of news stories that implicate phthalate plasticizers in the causation of nearly all human diseases, these compounds have played an important role in significant advances in medical equipment technology. Such compounds have allowed manufacturers to create materials that are both strong and flexible. Yet the healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente, which spends $1 billion each year on medical supplies, has decided to stop purchasing intravenous (IV) medical equipment that contains PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or DEHP (a type of phthalate) plasticizers.

This decision is a part of efforts to remove harmful chemicals from hospitals and clinics, says Raymond J. Baxter, Kaiser s senior vice president for Community Benefit, Research and Health Policy. Kaiser argues that long-term exposure to phthalates can cause hormonal abnormalities, particularly in infants, and that the manufacture or burning of PVC can release dioxin, which could cause cancer.

But ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross counters these assertions. There is no evidence that plasticizers in medical devices cause any adverse health effects in humans, he says. Dr. Ross points out that ACSH first assessed plasticizers in a Blue Ribbon Panel back in 1999, an investigation that found no health problems related to plasticizer exposure. Since then, no new evidence has suggested any health effects.

The use of plasticizers in medical equipment has been one of the most important health advances of recent times, says ACSH s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. They ve been incorporated into medical equipment safely for well over fifty years. Companies across the board have switched from older alternatives to plasticizers because of the significant benefits, Dr. Whelan points out. It s disappointing that a healthcare provider as large as Kaiser would decide to switch to materials other than plasticizers based on faulty science.

Furthermore, alternatives to plasticizers have no such history of safe use, and ACSH's Dr. Josh Bloom notes that there is no evidence that any replacement materials would be safer than, or even equally safe as, PVC and DEHP. He explains that the replacement materials, called elastomers, are synthetic rubber products. Looking at the chemicals used to make the synthetic rubber, he says, I couldn t possibly predict whether this material would be safer or more dangerous than what we have now.

Making this switch on such a large scale is certainly a risky decision, says Dr. Ross.