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 IngredientsPure 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.
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.
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."
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."
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:
- yoga mats
- crib mattresses
- waterproof mattress pads
- changing pads
- backpacks and other school supplies
- arts and crafts materials
- baby and toddler bibs
- garden hoses
I'll be discussing additional PVC-free alternatives in upcoming posts.
Sources/ Further Reading
- PVC, Bad News Come in Threes, the Poison Plastic, Health Hazards & the Looming Waste Crisis, The Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ)
- PVC, the Poison Plastic, CHEJ
- PVC and Other Plastics, Washington Toxics Coalition (WTC)
- The Dangers of PVC Plastic, My Plastic Free Life
- Smart Plastics Guide: Healthier Food Uses of Plastics for Parents and Children, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
- Eco-novice's Back-to-School Guide
- Choosing Arts & Crafts Materials that Are Safe for Kids
- Is Your Garden Hose Leaching BPA, Lead, and Phthalates into Your Water?
- Use Eco-friendly and PVC-free Yoga Mats to Avoid Phthalates and Other Toxic Chemicals
- Avoiding Toxins in Baby Products
- Non-toxic Crib Mattresses
- Eat Less Plastic
- Plastic-free and BPA-free Feeding Gear for Babies and Kids