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Biophile Magazine -- » PVC, the poison plastic

"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." Dalai Lama

PVC, the poison plastic

by Mike Schade

FILED IN: Ethical Consumerism · Issue 19


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PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic, commonly referred to as vinyl, is one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created. PVC is dangerous to human health and the environment throughout its entire life cycle, at the factory, in our homes, and in the trash.

Our bodies are contaminated with poisonous chemicals released during the PVC lifecycle, such as mercury, dioxins, and phthalates, which may pose irreversible lifelong health threats. When produced or burned, PVC plastic releases dioxins, a group of the most potent synthetic chemicals ever tested, which can cause cancer and harm the immune and reproductive systems.

The Smell of PVC
PVC is useless without the addition of a plethora of toxic additives, which can make the PVC product itself harmful to consumers. These chemicals can evaporate or leach out of PVC, posing risks to children and consumers. New car smell? New shower curtain smell? That’s the smell of poisonous chemicals off-gassing from the PVC. One of the most common toxic additives is DEHP, a phthalate that is a suspected carcinogen and reproductive toxicant readily found in numerous PVC products. Children can be exposed to phthalates by chewing on vinyl toys. While it is still legal for US retailers to sell PVC children’s and baby toys containing dangerous phthalates, the European Parliament voted in July, 2005 to permanently ban the use of certain toxic phthalates in toys. One EPA study found that vinyl shower curtains can cause elevated levels of dangerous air toxins, which can persist for more than a month.

Environmental Injustice
PVC plants are disproportionately located in lowincome communities and communities of color, making the production of PVC a major environmental justice concern. Communities surrounding vinyl chloride facilities suffer from groundwater and air pollution. In 1999, the federal government measured dioxins in blood samples taken from 28 residents who lived near PVC facilities in Louisiana. The testing revealed the average resident has three times more dioxin in his/her blood than the average U.S. citizen.

Workers at PVC plants may face life-long health risks from exposure to cancer-causing vinyl chloride and other hazardous chemicals used to make PVC. These health risks include angiosarcoma of the liver, lung cancer, brain cancer, lymphomas, leukemia, and liver cirrhosis.

Hazardous to Firefighters and Building Occupants
When heated in a building fire, PVC releases toxic hydrogen chloride gas, forming deadly hydrochloric acid when inhaled by firefighters and building occupants. Firefighters face harmful occupational exposures when battling fires laden with PVC building materials and consumer products. Building occupants may be killed from inhaling toxic PVC fumes before they are able to escape. After September 11th, the EPA measured the highest ambient air concentrations of dioxins ever near ground zero, likely due to the combustion of PVC and other chlorinated materials.

A Contaminant to Recycling
PVC cannot be effectively recycled due to the many different toxic additives used to soften or stabilize PVC, which can contaminate the recycling batch. Most consumers do not know that a 3 in the recycle symbol indicates that the plastic is made of PVC, and therefore recycle those products, inadvertently rendering thousands of potentially recycled containers useless. In fact just one PVC bottle can contaminate a recycling load of 100,000 PET bottles. Recycling of PVC is negligible, with estimates ranging from 0.1% to 3% of postconsumer PVC waste being recycled.

Safer, Healthier Alternatives are Readily Available
The good news is that safer, cost-effective, alternatives to PVC are readily available for virtually every use. From safer plastics, to bio-based materials, there is a growing market replacing hazardous PVC products. A growing list of companies have committed to phase out PVC products and switch to safer, healthier products. Some of these companies include Bath and Body Works, Honda, Ikea, Johnson and Johnson, Microsoft, Nike, Toyota, Victoria’s Secret, and Wal-Mart.

You can help build consumer demand for safer, healthier products by avoiding the purchase of PVC.
One way to be sure if the packaging of a product is made from PVC is to look for the number “3” inside or the letter “V” underneath the universal recycling symbol. In addition, soft flexible plastic products that are made with PVC often have a distinct odor, such as vinyl shower curtains. If you suspect that a product is made of PVC, contact the product manufacturer and ask them directly about the materials used in the product or packaging and your concerns about PVC.

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