How environmental propaganda is easily hidden on the web

Beau Brendler WebWatcher.Let's say you love going to the beach, but it's been galling you lately to see those unsightly plastic shopping bags blowing around in the wind. A scuba diver friend tells you they get twined around coral reefs and eaten by endangered sea turtles mistaking them for jellyfish. Would it help if you asked for paper, not plastic, the next time you buy groceries? Who would you ask for advice?

a) The people who make plastic bags for a living
b) The people who get paid millions of dollars to lobby for plastic bag makers
c) The chairman of your annual local beach clean-up party
d) A marine biologist

I'd pick the marine biologist first, the clean-up organizer second, and forget about a) and b). When you're looking at websites, though, it's not so easy to figure out who's who, especially when the identity is hidden, like it is on most of the American Chemistry Council's websites.

The council, representing 150 companies and with an annual budget of $100 million, is a veritable electronic propaganda machine. Its websites use a .org suffix that, contrary to what many people think, can be bought just like a .com or .biz. They have titles sounding subtly but not over-the-top authoritative, like,,, and That's probably a better approach than, the web site Kellen Interactive built for the food industry, which sounds like it's trying too hard.

Sam McMakin, the American Chemistry Council's Chief Information Officer, is associated with more than 800 domains. Some sites make it pretty clear they belong to his lobby group. Others, though, don't mention it at all. And few actually go into detail about who makes up the American Chemistry Council -- you have to go to the organization's main site for the definitive list, which includes Dow Chemical, DuPont, ExxonMobil, Merck, BP, Monsanto, Eli Lilly, Mitsubishi, Chevron, Shell -- oh, let's be honest, just about every multinational that's been associated with environmental degradation the last few decades, and even one or two with a few cases of garden-variety genocidal resource extraction.

Let's take a look at a small sample of American Chemistry Council sites.
comes up number one in Google if you search the keywords "bisphenol endocrine disruptor." Go to its home page, which tells you, "Bisphenol A is an industrial chemical used primarily to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins – both of which are used in countless applications that make our lives easier, healthier and safer, each and every day." Take a look at the "latest news" headlines. Do you see a single one there on the potential harmful effects of BPA? Do you see the story that made national news this week about Canada declaring BPA a toxic substance? By the way, it's not so easy on this site to find the council's affiliation. There's a small "Who we are" link on the top right of the home page, but no American Chemistry Council logo sometimes seen prominently on its other sites. By the way, the council owns this BPA site too, which kind of looks like a site for an HMO or something.
doesn't carry the council logo either, though the small print at the bottom of the home page identifies it. Below that is more small print that says plastic bag recycling isn't available everywhere, but the site is meant to assist consumers in finding local places that take bags. Click on the "Recycling Fact Sheet," though, and you get a talking points page aimed more at the environmentally harmful practices of paper bag production, and this curious factoid: "In 2006 more than 812 million pounds of plastic film and bags were recycled which is enough feed stock to manufacture nearly 1,500,000 composite lumber decks." doesn't tell you the American Chemistry Council poured a half-million dollars into an ad campaign opposing a recent Seattle referendum that would have charged consumers 20 cents per plastic bag in stores. Last month the council did the same thing in California, killing a bill to ban plastic bags outright, even though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to sign it. Ironically, the California Grocers Association, representing those who might be most inconvenienced by such a ban, supported the bill. Chemistry lobbyists used a time-honored tactic to kill the bill, claiming a ban would cost thousands of jobs. Seems to me a site that talks about plastic bag recycling would also make mention of some move to get rid of the things altogether, but this one doesn't. Click the "Consumers" tab on the home page, and we're told used plastic bags are practically a valuable untapped natural resource:
"Plastic bags are recycled into many different products. Most plastic bags are recycled into composite lumber but can also be reprocessed into small pellets, or post consumer resin, which can become feed stock for a variety of products such as new bags, pallets, containers, crates, and pipe."
Then there's, which sports the motto, "Better Living with Plastics." (Perhaps the council should consider a similar tagline for its home site: "Better Living Through Chemistry.") The council's logo does appear at the very bottom of the home page, and there's a lot of reassuring information in between about the safety of various plastic products.

Try reading the lengthy FAQ on the home page, specifically, towards the end in the answer to the question, "What about claims that very 'low-dose' exposures to BPA have resulted in adverse affects to laboratory animals?" Plasticsinfo says the low-dose issue has been "thoroughly tested with a series of extensive, carefully conducted studies. This research includes definitive large-scale studies as well as studies aimed at replicating the results of studies reporting low-dose effects.These studies consistently demonstrate that the low-dose hypothesis is not valid for BPA."

Actually, the European Commission Health & Consumer Protection Directorate General's report that cites right beneath its answer concludes nothing of the sort. It says, "As can be seen from ... toxicity data, the more recent studies indicate that reproductive and endocrine-related endpoints are important in the risk assessment of BPA." The study concludes more research is needed because the current data isn't robust enough, nor is it clear how well data from mice and rats transfers to humans.

Want real information on Bisphenol-A? Talk to the Canadians. They've got a lot of work ahead trying to figure out how to get the stuff out of hockey helmets.

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