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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Are IV Bags Hazardous to Your Health

Air Date: Week of

Recent research shows that there may be toxic chemicals leaching from the plastics of IV bags. Life-sustaining fluids may not be all that IV bags deliver to your veins.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. We go to the hospital to feel better. But it turns out that some medical equipment there may in fact damage our health. The plastic bags and tubing used to administer intravenous drugs and fluids are coming under suspicion. New research suggests that some of these vinyl products can leach trace amounts of toxic chemicals into patients' veins. Manufacturers say their products don't pose health problems, but many people have growing doubts. Rachael Gotbaum of member station WBUR in Boston reports.

(Voices in a hospital)

GOTBAUM: Nurses and doctors are rushing around the narrow hallway of a major Boston hospital.

MAN: I'm just telling you, I don't care. You tell me they are normal, I don't care.

(Wheels on the floor)

GOTBAUM: They're pulling poles down the corridor with IV bags attached.

(Rolling continues)

GOTBAUM: About 25% of all plastic hospital products, including IV bags, are made out of a plastic called polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. By itself, PVC is hard and brittle. But in the 1960s manufacturers began adding chemicals called pthalates to make their products soft and flexible. Most IV bags contain a phthalate called DEHP. In the mid 80s, the Environmental Protection Agency categorized DEHP as a probable carcinogen because it caused cancer in rodents. At that time the government asked toy manufacturers to stop using DEHP. Bill Ravenesi is with a group called Health Care Without Harm. Ravenesi says he no longer worries about his 3-year-old daughter being exposed to DEHP in toys, but he was concerned when she needed an IV recently.

RAVENESI: In the emergency room, she immediately got hooked up to IV bags, and I was put in the position of saying to myself, my God, here I am trying to help my daughter, and at the same time I'm watching her get infused with these pthalates that are probable human carcinogens.

GOTBAUM: Ravenesi says a recent study by his group shows that DEHP is leaching out of IV bags and into patients at an alarming rate. He says other studies show that the chemical is linked to organ damage and reproductive problems in rodents. Earl Gray is a biologist with the EPA who has conducted tests on how pthalates impact rodents' ability to reproduce.

GRAY: We have a pretty good idea that the action of the male hormone in human development is very similar, so there's some concern that these chemicals would produce the same types of effects in humans.

GOTBAUM: Dr. David Ozonoff is chair of the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health. Ozonoff acknowledges that years of animal studies have not been conclusive about the impact of DEHP and other pthalates on humans. But he says there's enough evidence to get rid of them.

OZONOFF: You know, what's the standard here? Are chemicals innocent until proven guilty? The burden is not on consumers to show that these chemicals cause harm. There is enough probable cause to indict these chemicals.

GOTBAUM: The Food and Drug Administration does not see DEHP as a public health threat, and there are scientists who agree with the agency's position. One of them is Dr. Steven Tannenbaum. Tannenbaum is a toxicologist and a professor at MIT. He's also a consultant for Baxter International, the country's largest manufacturer of PVC IV bags. Tannenbaum says rodents metabolize DEHP differently than humans, and he doesn't believe the chemical poses any danger to people.

TANNENBAUM: We've been exposed to this compound for, you know, for 40 or 50 years, probably. It's not like it's a brand new thing, so you would expect that if there was an effect, it would be emergent at this point.

GOTBAUM: Officials from Baxter say PVC is indispensable. But Europeans are beginning to phase out PVC, and Baxter sells them non-PVC IV bags. But the company says those products don't meet the sterilization requirements of the FDA. Many hospitals, including Boston's New England Medical Center, don't buy that argument. Several others are beginning to pressure Baxter and other manufacturers to sell non-PVC medical products in the US. Professor Margaret Quinn directs the Sustainable Hospital Project at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. She says hospital group purchasing organizations are likely to be pivotal in convincing manufacturers to sell non-PVC medical products.

QUINN: Many hospitals are making the changes, even with their group purchasing organizations, and starting a momentum that other hospitals are seeing that they can now make these same changes. However, this is a process that's going to take some time to implement.

GOTBAUM: Quinn welcomes more research on these chemicals, but she says it's market pressure that may be the deciding factor in the future of PVC products. For Living on Earth, I'm Rachael Gotbaum in Boston.



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