Friday, November 16, 2007

Fear and Hysteria in the Studio

Nearly every time I do a show, I have someone come up to me and ask me if I know about how dangerous polymer clay is. What is interesting about these encounters is that there is very little fact presented, just fear, and a sense that if I do not take what they are saying seriously, I am being irresponsible. When I mention any studies that have been done to look at the potential risks of working with polymer clay, and show that there is little to no risk, they are dismissed out of hand.

I am going to put on my scientist hat today. In addition to having an MBA, I have a degree in chemistry. I never worked in a lab after graduation, nonetheless, I learned enough about the scientific process to be able to understand the difference between hype and fact. Lately there has been a campaign by several environmental groups, whom I might otherwise support, to ban certain substances, among them, phthalates.

Phthalates are found in polymer clay, in addition to many plastics. They make polymer clay pliable until it is cured. They can be used in plastics to make the end product softer or more flexible. The rationale for banning these chemicals is that they are possibly linked to cancer and endocrine disruptions. This was based upon studies done by injecting large quantities of phthalates just below the skin of a rodent, or having the rodent consume the phthalates directly. The fear was that children chewing on pacifiers, bottle nipples, or some toys might ingest enough phthalates to risk serious health problems. There is nothing that will generate more fear and panic than to suggest that something that an infant is putting in their mouth might cause cancer later in their life.

What about the reality? In order for the children to consume an equivalent amount of phthalates as the rodents were exposed to, all of the phthalates would have to leach out of the product….not probable. And, they would have to chew on the toy or other item for at least 12 hours, continuously, each day. Add to this the fact that the results achieved with mice and rats have never been observed in higher level mammals on a repeatable or reliable basis. These include guinea pigs, and rabbits. And there is no reliable evidence of these outcomes with humans.

All we have is fear, built on possible, not probable outcomes.

The European Union (EU) has banned phthalates. Now the same groups are working to extend the ban to the U.S. A big part of the rationale, …..these products are banned in Europe. If it is banned in Europe it must be bad. Right? We don’t need to look at the science. We just need to know that someone else said it might be dangerous. As Bill Durodie, of Cranfield University in the U.K., aptly explains in a paper from April 2007, titled “Why Did the European Union Ban Phthalates?”, it was more about the potential risk rather than the real risk.

“ research commissioned by the European Union’s own executive branch, the European Commission, had already concluded that the chance of a child exceeding the recommended limits through exposure to such products was ‘so rare that the statistical likelihood cannot be estimated.’

Given those results, why would the ban be implemented? This was a few short years after the BSE or Mad Cow disease scare spread through Europe. The Commission was perhaps feeling more reactive as a result. Better to eliminate a potential health crisis than to face criticism for not acting. This type of behavior, acting on fear rather than fact, is the same type of behavior that has lead to major foreign policy blunders by this country in the last several years.

We are in an environment where our politicians are more likely to be swayed by public fears than by fact. And the media is more likely to be swayed by these fears as well. I have seen blogs , heard radio shows , and too much more that tells me the risk of these products being banned is greater than the real risk the products pose. Again, I go back to the paper by Durodie, from April of 2007.

“….manufacturers, retailers and local authorities were already
withdrawing such items from sale while admitting, in one significant case at least, that this was largely ‘a marketing decision’.

According to the European Commission’s own rules, application of
the precautionary principle should be ‘proportional’, ‘consistent’ and
‘subject to review’. Yet despite the considerable information and evidence that has emerged since the introduction of the ban, suggesting that most of the initial assumptions were flawed, the restrictions remain in place. This is, in part, because the drive to err towards the side of caution encourages officials to continuously defer to previously obtained worst-case estimates and scenarios,
irrespective of any evidence gathered since.”

Reactionary behavior, either by the right or the left politically, can have consequences we do not foresee. When Greenpeace campaigns to eliminate PVCs, and no one questions fully the rationale, are we better off? We may be afraid of chemistry because we don’t understand it. But ignorance and fear do not lead to good decisions. Our shower curtains are not going to give us cancer, or destroy our reproductive capacity.

The same gallery owner who suggests that it would be good to avoid purchasing a polymer clay necklace because of the risks that phthalates pose, carries jewelry made with resin, enamel, and other "toxic" materials in her gallery. When the customer buys any of these finished products, they are chemically stable and safe, just as a polymer clay necklace would be. But the artists are exposed to potential toxins in the creation of the work. Used intelligently, the risks are manageable with all these materials. There is no real risk to the consumer with any of them. If we want to eliminate risks, let’s do it judiciously, and with consideration of the facts.

It is not easy to stand up in favor of chemicals, especially ones that can hardly be pronounced. Yet, it is not the chemical per se I am standing up for. Rather, it is the idea that we need to look at facts, and not let our emotions overtake our judgement. It is easy to look at chemicals as bad, Greenpeace as good. But the reality is far less black and white, and far less simplistic. There was a time in our countries history when all someone had to do was accuse someone of being a part of the Communist party, and their life was destroyed. Facts were less important than innuendo.

This is about as political as I plan to be in this blog. It is actually more political than I intend. But it is important to me that this freight train of emotional reaction is slowed down. I am likely to get run over by the train, or at least drowned out. But at least I didn’t just sit by and watch it happen. Not many voices are out there trying to say "wait a minute, let's look at the facts". Instead, there is a lot of stirring up of fear and emotion.

Please, before you take a stand on an issue, any issue, inform yourself fully. If someone presents you with a potential problem, do not hesitate to ask questions. Do not take everything you hear or read at face value. Feel free to question my position on this issue as well. Nothing is ever as simple as some people want us to believe.


Geraldine said...

when i was working for greenpeace, one of my coworkers introduced me to polymer clay. a lot of us were wearing polymer beads at the time. a couple of years later, after i had really begun to enjoy the clay, one of my other friends read the label. she was a higher up in the pvc campaign. she told me, "this is pvc." and by then i had to tell her it was too late. i was already hooked.

Judy said...

There is that problem, too, isn't there, Geraldine. :-) Perhaps if I wssn't hooked on working with the clay myself, I wouldn't be so concerned about what is going on. But the impact is far beyond the little world of polymer clay.

Steph said...

Found you through Polymer Clay Daily ... thanks for this article .. very intresting ... I think polymer clay like many other media is to be used carefully ... Working with metals can be nasty too... I think I'm going to start wearing gloves ...

Rebecca said...

Great article. Wish you would also address the whole, it's fumes are toxic paranoia as well. Everything has the potential to be bad/harmful if we let it. Nice blog

DivaLea said...

This post (which I found via, and a letter from Kim Cavender, really got me thinking, and thinking leads to a LiveJournal post:

I thought you did a fantastic job of making your case.

whimsymoon said...

Excellent article! I too found you through

4artssake said...

ok, so I have just stumbled upon this well written 2009! I must say, in using any medium, it is a simple matter of understanding the material and applying common sense. After all, if galleries, etc., were to start banning the use of other mediums, there would be not cadmium pigments applied to a canvass. As I use many different mediums, I have as yet to suck cadmium red from a tube of paint. It's reasonable to understand that if an artist is using a toaster-oven to cure their polymer clay, repeatedly, the walls of the oven would eventually collect minute chemical particles released through the baking process. I use resins a lot, follow proper ventilation and disposal procedures..and never mix the catylist with the resin, in my coffee mug. sigh. Paranoia can get out of hand, as we all seen in such fears as mad cow. I did not hold back in creating a 3D cartoon of my rendition of a mad cow..and it surprisingly helped others to calm down and take a realistic view of the actual facts. I will always work with polymer clay, as I have been doing since the first introduction of Fimo to the market. I am quite healthy, thank you!