Plastics Part 4: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) – The Most Toxic Plastic
Guest blogger, Jessica Connolly of Recology San Mateo County explores plastics and her relationship to them in this series.
Before sitting down to write this blog, I tried to figure out how to paint a neutral picture about PVC. In my three other blog posts about plastic, I describe both the benefits and the drawbacks of the products that permeate our lives. The dilemma that arises with PVC, however, is that I don’t see much benefit to this plastic. Perhaps I am being melodramatic about PVC, but when I think of the seven categories of plastic out there, with #3 (PVC), #6 (PS) and #7 (O) being the three most problematic, PVC tops the list as the most harmful and toxic plastic of them all.
The partial exception that I have found is that this type of plastic is used in the construction industry. Over half of the PVC manufactured is used in construction because it is tremendously inexpensive, durable and easy to assemble. It has become very standardized in the industry, with hundreds of different parts that snap, slide and fasten together, simplifying and reducing the time it takes to make something. PVC pipes and fasteners help transport, for the most part, non-potable water to and from our homes, schools, and offices for bathing, washing dishes and clothes, and watering our lawns.
PVC is the hardest and most rigid plastic, which is why it excels in the construction industry. However, during the manufacturing and disposal process of any type of PVC product, dioxins are formed. Dioxins are by-products known to be the most toxic chemical group in existence. They result from heating and burning PVC, and they cause many problems in the environment and in our bodies. They are both persistent and bioaccumulative, attaching to lipids in our bodies and living with us throughout our lives. Dioxins cause hormonal disruption, cancers, weakened immune systems, and other developmental problems.
PVC is also toxic throughout its consumer and post-consumer life. During the consumer phase, PVC products off-gas (release gases into the air) and leach out of the plastic, absorbing into things they come in contact with. They are especially problematic when absorbed into our bodies through skin contact and inhalation. This is a more common outcome in the manufacturing of PVC into soft-goods, which accounts for the other half of annual PVC production. This type of PVC (the soft, pliable, flexible, shiny, and stretchy kind) requires a stagger amount of additives, softeners, fillers, pigments, and plasticizers. The main reason for such leaching is because many of the aforementioned additives are added, not bound, to the plastic.
One popular (and extremely problematic) plasticizer in PVC, di-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), is known to leach from PVC and into our bodies. It causes considerable endocrine disruption in both sexes, but prepubescent males are the most at risk. DEHP can cause a reduced and/or unhealthy sperm population, infertility, and cross-sexual organs from male to female. DEHP (and most other plasticizers found in PVC) leach more easily when in contact with liquids and lipids (fats) and increased temperatures. Plasticizers especially love to bind with lipids, attract other potentially hazardous chemicals (such as pesticides, heavy metals, and dioxins), and bioaccumulate in our bodies.
I bet you are now wondering what kinds of things are made from PVC. Well, I would like to cover all the bases. Because I think this plastic is so bad, I don’t want there to be any surprises.
What is made from PVC?
To begin, anything with the word “vinyl” is PVC, as its name, Polyvinyl Chloride suggests. This includes vinyl records, vinyl tablecloths, and vinyl flooring (think linoleum, and plastic tiles). Shower curtains, inflatable pool toys, inflatable floaties, slip-n-slides, above-ground plastic pools, water beds, garden hoses (yes, the ones we used to drink from as kids), car interiors including the dashboard, door panels and underbody coating, car seats, strollers, rain protectors on strollers, children’s lunch boxes, soft baby toys (including teething rings), bibs, diaper-changing mats, yoga mats, yoga balls, ingredients in cosmetics and body wash, shampoo bottles, raincoats, rain boots, patent leather clothing, patent leather furniture, green houses, wiring and cables, food packaging and bottles, roofing membranes, insulation, the interiors of refrigerators, dish washers and washing machines, carpets, wall paper, Venetian blinds, shoe soles, “manmade” materials in shoes, synthetic watch bands, packing tape, 3-ring binders, paper sheet protectors, clothing with shiny patterns, medical supplies such as IV bags, tubing, catheters, blood bags, and colostomy bags, cling wrap for leftovers, credit cards, gift cards, checkbook covers, fake Christmas trees, tarps, orange traffic cones, drinking straws, keyboards, computer parts, mouse pads, colored paper clips, and much (MUCH) more is made from PVC.
PVC recycling and disposal
Since PVC has so many additives, and half of PVC production is made into non-rigid goods, this plastic is not easily recycled. In fact, of the seven types of plastic resins, PVC has the lowest recycling rate. The fate of post-consumer PVC is grim: it is usually sent to landfills and incinerators. In landfills, PVC products mix with many other toxic components and create leachate (liquid found inside landfills), which often includes solvents, heavy metals, oils, contaminated rainwater, and any other free liquid that was disposed of in the landfill. Leachate is commonly removed and reintroduced back into the landfill to promote decomposition of organic material buried there, or it is removed and treated in municipal waste water systems. When incinerated, PVC contributes to the creation of dioxins, especially when burned with combustibles, such as food and paper. These dioxins escape into the atmosphere, and contribute to the problems previously mentioned.
While it is impossible to avoid everything made from PVC, alternatives to the plastic have been emerging. Though medical devices are still primarily made from PVC, Kaiser Permanente has phased out the use of PVC in tubing, IV bags, blood bags, catheters, and colostomy bags. PVC-free consumer goods are eagerly labeled as such, and companies are happy to brand themselves as “eco-friendly.” Many products identify their ingredients, so reading tags, labels and searching for a number enclosed in the chasing arrows is a good habit to have. Becoming more aware of what products are made from PVC, vinyl, and “man made materials” will prove to be extremely advantageous to you, your loved ones… and the environment.