PVC Dangers and Healthy Alternatives
PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) is one of the pervasive and toxic materials used in the building industry. It is the third-most widely produced plastic, after polyethylene and polypropylene. PVC production is the largest use of chlorine gas in the world. PVC consumes about 40 percent of total chlorine production, or approximately 16 million tons of chlorine per year worldwide. 75% of PVC is used in the building industry. PVC is the largest production-volume organochlorine, a large class of chemicals that have come under scientific and regulatory scrutiny in the last decade because of their global distribution and the unusually severe hazards they tend to pose. This blog is about PVC dangers and healthy alternatives.
The following is a summary from a 2008 PVC Packaging Phase Out bill (AB 2505) in the CA legislation. 2013 would have marked the beginning of this 2 year phase out if the bill had passed.
PVC packaging is a human health and an environmental threat. PVC packaging is toxic in all stages of its lifecycle. PVC production involves large amounts of dangerous chlorine gas, as well as vinyl chloride, a dangerous carcinogen. PVC production is responsible for at least one superfund site in California and studies have linked it with high cancer rates. In the home, PVC packaging can leach its many toxins through contact with the mouth, and may also shed these particles into the air to be inhaled. These include phthalates, which mimic human hormones and cause abnormal growth and heavy metals such as Lead and Cadmium, which cause brain damage in very small amounts. Once disposed, PVC packaging is not recycled. In fact, PVC packaging is a potent and expensive contaminant in the recycling streams of other, nontoxic plastic packaging, preventing municipalities from recycling more. When landfilled or littered PVC packaging leaches its toxins into the surrounding toxins. Recognizing the dangers these leached toxins pose to wildlife, the California Ocean Protection Council, an organization created by Governor Schwarzenegger, called for the banning of vinyl chloride packaging. This is a good start to recognizing PVC dangers and healthy alternatives.
PVC’s possible health effects include:
- Disruption of the endocrine system
- Reproductive impairment
- Impaired child development and birth defects
- Neurotoxicity (damage to the brain or its function), and
- Immune system suppression
Some commons places where you might find PVC:
- Carpet backings
- Window Shading
- Water Piping
- Electrical Wiring
- Roofing membranes
- Window Assemblies
Additional information on the toxic manufacture and disposal process of PVC can be found here at the Healthy Building Network. One interesting fact from HBN: Of an estimated 7 billion pounds of PVC thrown away in the US, only 14 million – less than 1/2 of 1 percent – is recycled.
Some room for debate exists in the fact that some aspects of a building, specifically the pipes have a longer lifetime and are more durable than any other material. In the longer term this may account to less embodied or operational energy. However this doesn’t account for all the externalities related to the manufacturing of PVC, or the toxins released during disposal. Looking at he entire life cycle of the product is a crucial when these types of comparisons are made. In some circumstances, the next best alternative for PVC may be more toxic or contribute more to GHGs, but in the vast majority of situations there appears to be a better alternatives.
Stages in the PVC life cycle
that are a major concern include: (Bluevinyl.Org, 2012)
Disposal – Landfill and Recycling – High chlorine content in PVC makes recycling complicated and expensive because it cannot be mixed with other plastics.
Manufacturing PVC – Throughout its lifecycle, PVC can cause harm. PVC requires hazardous chemicals in its production and very hazardous chemicals, such as dioxin and PCBs, are byproducts of that same production. PVC is useless without the addition of a number of dangerous chemical stabilizers, such as lead and cadmium, and phthalates.
Disposal – Incineration and open burning -Dioxin is formed when PVC is manufactured and when it is burned, either in an incinerator or an open fire. Dioxin is a known human carcinogen and among the most toxic chemicals known.
Bioaccumulation – Once dioxin enters the environment, it can be carried long distances by the wind. From there, the dioxin molecules are deposited on surface waters, soils and plants where it moves up the food chain, accumulating at higher and higher concentrations in fish, animals and eventually in people
Transmission -Dioxin has many sources in addition to the manufacture and incineration of PVC. But when PVC plastic is burned, it directly contributes to the dioxin releases to the environment, which eventually trespass into our food supply. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average American has a body burden of dioxin that is at or near the level where health effects are known to occur.
Other PVC Policies Around the World
Spain, Germany and Sweden have all aimed to reduce PVC in their respective countries. This article in PVC Policies Across the World goes into more depth concerning leading industries, corporations, countries pursuing non-PVC strategies. Last Year, Kaiser Permanente, a leading hospital in the U.S. decided to not purchase IV equipment made with PVC or phalates. This decision not only eliminated these chemicals from the waste stream, but ended up saving them over $5 million dollars a year in purchasing. (Center for Health, Justice, and the Environment – PVC Policies Around the World, 2012)
A recent article (February 2013) looks into how stricter laws trigger innovation. Here are some examples graphs describing the phase-out of phthalates, one of the main toxic substances in PVC. These graphs mostly concern EU regulation and the same would likely occur in the U.S. in the face of such regulation.
Healthy Building Science has a number of projects where PVC is eliminated from the specifications. We can work with you to identify likely uses of PVC and better alternatives. Using Cradle-to-Cradle projects is the easiest way to ensure that PVC is not present in a project. Seeking Living Building Certification is also a good standard to strive for, since it is one of only green building standard that eliminates the use of PVC in building projects.