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.

–Danielle Barav

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5 Responses to Eastman’s Gamble: Is It Worth Publicly Fighting Bad Press?

  1. Veronica says:

    What an interesting post, Dahni! Turns out, the gamble was worth it: http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2013-08-02/eastman-wins-jury-still-out-on-plastic/. Although Eastman won out, it will be interesting to see how this lawsuit influences studies on the effects of chemicals that line products consumers use everyday. Hopefully more resources are put into understanding BPA and EA, among other unknown chemicals, so as to protect consumers from negative health effects and long-term dangers.

  2. John Craven says:

    Great post! I agree that the strategy taken by Eastman is somewhat surprising and certainly comes with its fair share of risks. However, much like a CEO buying stock in the company she manages, Eastman seems to be hoping the public will view this aggressive litigation strategy as evidence of confidence in their products’ safety. And having the ball in their court by filing suit may allow them to better control the exposure of certain ‘skeletons.’

  3. Danielle Barav says:

    I agree that the science in this case will be difficult for the jury, and the public, to parse. Like Emma, I am surprised that Eastman is willing to go forward when the lawsuit will bring so much focus to Eastman’s damaging ‘skeletons in the closet’ mentioned above. I think the fight is for the opinion of the public and consumers, though. If the public can be convinced, or confused, enough to continue buying Eastman plastics, then the lawsuit is a win regardless of what happens in the courtroom.

  4. Emma says:

    Great post! I agree with Kate that it will be interesting to see how the information regarding the scientific methods will be presented to the jury. Perhaps Eastman is hoping that the conflict of interests story and their willingness to go forward with a lawsuit that might expose lots of damaging information if it exists will be more accessible and convincing to jurors than expert testimony, regardless of what the experts have to say.

  5. Kate Haywood says:

    This article raises a lot of interesting issues that I am curious to see played out in court. I am most interested to see how a jury responds to all the heavy, scientific information that will be thrown at them. I think a lot of it will come down to the credibility of each side’s experts and executives. In a lawsuit where discovery is sure to be plentiful, I am also surprised that a plastics manufacturer, who I’m sure has discoverable skeletons in its closet, chose to file suit. I think Bittner said it best that Eastman really is putting its product on trial, something most chemical manufacturers would never do! Great article!