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This week, Eastman Chemical is taking a chance on a lawsuit in an attempt to redeem the safety reputation of its plastic products. In response to strong consumer demand for safer water bottles and baby products, Eastman created one of the first BPA-free plastics, called Tritan. Recent studies by a small Texas company, Certichem, have suggested, however, that Tritan plastic is not as safe as Eastman claims. Federal agencies and scientists disagree on the health impacts of certain estrogen-mimicking chemicals, but consumers have made clear that that they want safer products. For this reason, Eastman Chemical is very eager to put a lid on Certichem’s report. Eastman is gambling that its lawsuit against Certichem will repair its reputation, but there is a danger that it might expose even more damaging information instead.
BPA, or Bisphenol A, is just one chemical that studies have shown causes estrogenic activity (EA), meaning that it mimics the impact of estrogen in the body. Certichem’s studies show that non-BPA chemicals in plastic resin also create EA under certain conditions. Certichem analyzed several types of plastic, including Eastman’s Tritan brand, and have thrown doubt on Eastman’s claims that Tritan is both BPA-free and EA-free. The studies go even further, however: they show that even plastics that do not cause estrogenic activity when they are first sold in stores may leach EA-producing chemicals after certain wear and tear, like microwaving, dishwashing, or exposure to sunlight.
Eastman is gambling that the jury and the public will understand what it claims are faults in Certichem’s testing methodology. Eastman alleges that Certichem analyzed plastic samples using a screening method that produces many false positives, yet Certichem has misrepresented the test as conclusive. Certichem contends, however, that the study contained a second test that screened out false positives. Eastman also criticizes the way Certichem tested sun exposure, insisting that the UV lighting in the study does not create the same effects as natural sunlight. The lawsuit will likely hinge on how well the jury is able to understand detailed, complex expert testimony on scientific methods.
In addition to its technical arguments, however, Eastman also insists that Certichem’s results are tainted by a conflict of interests. Certichem and its sister company, PlastiPure, were both founded by George Bittner, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. PlastiPure helps companies make EA-free plastics, so it has a direct stake in the outcome of Certichem’s studies. Eastman claims that PlastiPure has contacted Eastman customers to notify them of EA in Tritan plastic—which Eastman claims prompted the lawsuit in the first place.
Though Eastman Chemical hopes that the lawsuit will vindicate the safety of its products, the company risks creating very negative publicity. Bittner says that “by bringing suit, Eastman Chemical has effectively put its Tritan product on trial.” The trial is likely to bring a lot of attention to an independent third-party study that corroborates Certichem’s findings, as well as to Eastman’s practice of funding supposedly independent safety tests of its products. Furthermore, the lawsuit has spurred criticism that Eastman Chemical is attempting to stifle scientific testing on this front and to bury evidence that its products are unsafe.
Lawsuits are a gamble. Eastman is betting that, after all the information is made public, consumers will still feel safe buying Tritan bottles and baby products. Either way, this action has brought widespread attention to the issue of non-BPA EAs in plastic products, which may benefit consumers no matter how the lawsuit ends.
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