From microbophobia to toxinmania

December 20th, 2007
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“Thank God I finally got myself a glass water bottle,” muttered the colleague in the communal staff kitchen.

“Why’s that?” I inquired innocently.

“To avoid all the toxins leaching out of plastic bottles, of course!” he retorted, as if explaining self-evident reality to a simpleton.

I had to chuckle at the long, long road mankind had travelled to his post-modern end-state.

No sooner are claims polycarbonate bottles release super-scary-sounding dioxins debunked as an urban legend, than others raise fears they can leach Bisphenol-A, a “hormone disruptor” (also scary sounding, if vaguer). Here, too, there’s apparently a huge body of research debunking the scare.

In any other civilization, in any other age, in any other place, sterile sealed plastic bottles that were guaranteed to remain clean and safe and instantly usable even if stored at length, transported long distances and physically pummelled would be considered a miracle. Indeed, they still are by many. Watch enough clips of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan and eventually you’ll spot a pallet-load of plastic bottles destined for parched troops uninterested in relying on the biologically rich delights of the local wells.

It’s funny how we seems to be trading a steadily dimming awareness of traditional physical risks for increasingly acute sensitivity to the whispiest allegations of insidious health risks. Many of these allegations, conveniently, confirm stereotypes and popular prejudices about the products’ purveyors.

On the one hand, there’s hardly a human alive who’s never cut themselves on glass. Objectively, statistically, glass is dangerous if mishandled. Don’t get me wrong: glass is great. But in today’s world, its main attraction is aesthetic. Wine should only be consumed from glasses. But it poses obvious hazards around the hot tub, on a summer’s deck with kids underfoot, etc.

Enter plastic, for which there’s not a single established instance of injury from “toxins” released from the material. Plastic is enormously utilitarian in innumerable applications.

Still, while its risks may be fantasy, it’s compelling fantasy rendered urgent by the artificially moralistic dimension. Plastic comes from…Big Oil. Big Oil is bad. Big Oil causes global warming, or manipulates us into using its products, forcing us to cause global warming. Big Oil is so stupid and corrupt – even at the same instance as it’s fiendishly clever in all its manipulative machinations – that its products simply must be releasing those evil toxins. They probably can’t kill me today – unlike cholera, say – but 40 years from now I can use them to explain all of my health problems. Oh, and the narrative neatly meshes with the wider campaign against bottled water in general, the transport of which allegedly wastes energy, which emits, you know…

Another real risk that humankind has had to cope with – and only began to overcome with any consistency in the past 150 years or so – is the veritable army of communicable diseases conveyed by infected water. These diseases leaped from person to person with help from often-reused, rarely sterilized traditional containers.

Indeed, a certain venerable relation of Dr. J.’s to this day maintains his lifelong aversion to the never-quiescent dangers posed by aquarian bacteria. He claims to be able to spot “microbes” – a word he pronounces in a richly elegant colonial-melange – with the naked eye. However, he comes by his fear honestly, having grown up in rural Indochina, where uncounted succumbed to water-borne disease.

While he surely appreciates the life-saving benefits of modern science, medicine, sanitation, manufacturing and quality control, today these historic triumphs are taken for granted to an extreme degree. To such a degree that some find themselves compelled to substitute equally invisible but truly chimerical evils: toxins leaching from plastic.

It’s as if something in the human psyche prevents us from just being happy and contented, something that requires drama, threat, conflict. Many among us apparently can’t do without the apprehended existence of evil spirits or malevolent forces lurking about. Having long discarded a theologically based belief in the objective existence of moral evil linked to man’s fallen nature, virtually anything will do in its place.

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