What's So Bad About Vinyl Plastic (PVC)?

I have a general avoidance policy towards plastic, particularly disposable plastic. I seek less toxic alternatives to plastics whenever I can. But I make an extra special effort to avoid certain plastics, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC), also known as vinyl or the #3 plastic. The Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) calls PVC "the most toxic plastic for children’s health and the environment."

What makes PVC uniquely toxic? 

In a nutshell, PVC plastic is uniquely toxic among plastics because of its highly toxic ingredients which readily migrate into the environment during its production, its use, and its disposal.

Toxic Ingredients

Pure PVC plastic is 57% chlorine, a toxic substance whose production generates substantial pollution (see below). PVC plastic is the only plastic made with chlorine. In addition, PVC plastic requires toxic additives, including heavy metals such as lead, endocrine-disrupting phthalates, and toxic flame retardants, in order to be made into stable and usable consumer products. These additives are released during both the use and disposal of PVC products.

Toxic Production

A basic building block of polyvinyl chloride is chlorine, and chlorine production releases dioxins into the environment.
  • According to CHEJ, dioxins are "a family of highly toxic chemicals that are known to cause cancer, reproductive, developmental and immune problems." 
  • Dioxin has been classified as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of WHO) and the U.S. National Toxicology Program. 
  • Some scientists assert that there is no safe level of dioxin exposure for humans. 
  • Dioxins are persistent and bioaccumulative. Most human exposure is through food, mainly meat, dairy products, fish and shellfish (dioxins concentrate in the fatty tissue of animals).
  • In addition to dioxin, chlorine production also results in mercury emissions and asbestos waste. 
  • Communities surrounding PVC plants are particularly susceptible to the toxic chemical pollution from PVC production.  

Toxic Use

The toxic additives in vinyl readily leach and migrate out of PVC products. For example:
  • Merely handling a binder made with PVC stabilized by lead can result in lead exposure. The lead in the PVC migrates to the surface where it is readily picked up by your hand and then transferred to the mouth. 
  • The phthalates added to make soft and pliable vinyl products, such as shower curtains and children's lunch bags, easily migrate or off-gas, making them easy to inhale or ingest
  • Toxic tris flame retardants are added to PVC products such as vinyl flooring and are released as off-gassing occurs from the vinyl. 
  • According to CHEJ, "Scientists have found certain vinyl chemicals linked to asthma, cancer, birth defects, learning and developmental disabilities, obesity, diabetes and other preventable chronic diseases on the rise." 

Toxic Disposal

Whether a PVC product ends up in an incinerator, landfill, or recycling center at the end of its lifespan, PVC is bad news.
  • When garbage is incinerated (still a method of waste disposal in many states), additional dioxins are released into the environment. Dioxins are also released due to the numerous accidental fires that burn buildings and vehicles, two sectors that use substantial amounts of PVC. 
  • Many PVC additives, including phthalates and heavy metals such as lead, slowly leach out of PVC plastics over time when placed in a landfill (many of which are unlined), eventually contaminating ground and surface water. 
  • Vinyl is the least recyclable plastic because of the diversity of additives used to make different types of PVC products. In addition, when PVC-products are accidentally mixed with non-chlorine plastics, they contaminate the entire recycling process.
  • According to a 2004 CHEJ report, "Non-durable (short-lived) products account for more than 70% of PVC disposed in municipal solid waste in the U.S."

Avoiding PVC

Unfortunately, PVC can be difficult to avoid because it's is one of the most widely used plastics and it turns up everywhere. The good news is that more and more alternatives to vinyl products are becoming available. Check out these posts that describe and review PVC-free:

I'll be discussing additional PVC-free alternatives in upcoming posts.

Sources/ Further Reading

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  1. What about phthalates free PVC? Is it too good to be true?

    1. Is there such a thing as phthalate-free PVC? I'm sure there is. I've seen that term on Melissa & Doug product sites. I still just steer clear of PVC all together b/c there are still the issues with manufacturing and disposal, but phthalate-free PVC is definitely better than PVC with phthalates (this comes up a bit in the yoga mat post, where I discuss so-called "clean PVC").

  2. Is there a danger with outdoor furniture? Is the off-gassing mitigated because of being outdoors? I have chairs with vinyl siding with and am concerned about health risks given I have two young children.

    1. Yes, off-gassing is not a big issue if furniture is outside. My guess is, unless your child is sucking on the furniture, the immediate harm to individuals is small. Any hand contact with the chair could potentially leave undesirable substances on the hands though. I personally would probably get rid of them, but it depends on how easily you can replace them.


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