Should PVC be Banned in Schools and Daycare Facilities?

Health & Wellness on 11.07.11
Contributor bio

Photo: Slongood/CC BY 2.0

At their 2011 annual meeting, the American Public Health Association (APHA) established a policy resolution on reducing PVC in facilities with vulnerable populations - including schools and hospitals.

Polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as PVC, has become ubiquitous in modern life - in flooring, carpet, wall coverings, and in many objects such as toys, school supplies, and medical supplies. PVC was first manufactured in the 1930's. Its use exploded during the chemical revolution in the 50's and 60's, and today, worldwide production of PVC exceeds 30 million tons (with 45 million tons of capacity in existing factories).

We take a closer look at this common plastic: what are the problems? Can PVC be banned? And does PVC affect our kids?

Are Our Kids at Risk?

Let us start with first things first: Does PVC pose a real risk to our kids? As is the case with so many chemical exposures, we cannot answer this question definitively. We know rates of asthma, allergies, early puberty, childhood cancer, autism, and other diseases are on the rise. But it is very hard to find hard and fast proof of which chemicals are responsible.

This is exactly what makes the APHA resolution such a good thing: let us use the precautionary principle whenever we are not certain. APHA urges six points of action:

  1. Purchasing staff of organizations with "vulnerable populations" should be educated about PVC
  2. A database of PVC - including which stabilizers and additives are used - should be set up
  3. Financial incentives for using alternatives to PVC in facilities with "vulnerable populations"
  4. Phase-out of PVC in facilities with "vulnerable populations"
  5. Relief plans for workers in the PVC industry impacted by the phase-out
  6. Further research on links between PVC and allergies and asthma

We particularly favor the recommendation for a database tracking the use of PVC and its additives. This would provide an excellent source of data for studies, increase transparency for parents, and - as will be discussed below - help to sort out the "good" PVC from the "bad".

Why is PVC Considered Toxic?

Often called the most toxic plastic, PVC itself is not harmful. You may read that vinyl chloride (VC) causes cancer and central nervous system damage. But you do not need to worry about this, because there is no vinyl chloride released from PVC. This is because polymers are stable molecules made up of many vinyl chloride units (called monomers) hooked together. Once the VC is hooked up into PVC, the vinyl chloride does not break out again.

But PVC suffers from three problems that have earned it a reputation as toxic.

1) Stabilizers

When PVC does break down, it does not release VC. Instead, it seeps HCl. Yes, that is hydrochloric acid. Not ideal, especially if you consider that sunlight (ultraviolet rays) or heat speeds up the breakdown. Which poses problem number one: PVC must have stabilizers mixed into it to prevent it from breaking down and oozing corrosive acid. Common PVC stabilizers include cadmium, lead, and organotins. All three of these options are terrible:

  • Cadmium is carcinogenic, possibly mutagenic (changes genes in a way that can be passed on to offspring), possibly damaging to fertility or unborn children, and causes kidney damage.
  • Lead hardly needs mention; its reputation as damaging to neurological development precedes it.
  • Organotins are not high on the public radar. Industry turned to tin because it is a much less toxic metal than cadmium or lead; but by cloaking it in organic molecules, they unexpectedly created new monsters. For example, dibutyl tin is highly immunotoxic  - which means either suppressing the immune system's ability to fight diseases or foreign bodies like cancer and/or causing the immune system to attack the healthy body itself.

2) Plasticizers

The second problem arises because PVC is a rigid plastic. In order to make PVC more flexible, additives called plasticizers must be used. The additive of choice for years was di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEP or DEHP). One of many in the infamous phthalate family, these chemicals are dangerous because they mimic our normal hormones - meaning the body reacts to their chemical messages even at very low concentrations. Adverse effects reported for phthalates include links to asthma and allergies, and even an accidental finding of a correlation between vinyl floors and autism - which requires more investigation but constitutes one of few studies showing a relationship between autism and environmental chemicals.

3) Life Cycle Complications of Chlorine

The final mark against PVC is the chlorine it contains. In addition to worker safety issues when handling vinyl chloride monomers, the presence of chlorine in the plastic causes the formation of dioxins - one of the most potent carcinogens known - when the plastic is burned. This poses issues with end-of-life disposal, creates hazards in accidental fires, and complicates the recycling of PVC (known by the number 3 recycling code).

It should be noted that dioxin is not a problem in developed countries with strict controls on waste incinerators. But in the many waste piles around the globe where open burning still contributes to the recovery and disposal technology, PVC is a disaster.

Should PVC be Banned?

It is not so easy to just stop making and using PVC. Although there are plenty of suitable alternatives to substitute most uses of PVC, there is a bigger underlying problem. PVC provides an excellent use for chlorine, which is created when salt water is split during the production of sodium hydroxide -an essential chemical required in high volumes for many fields including pulp and paper, textiles, and soaps. In fact, greatly reducing demand for PVC will create a new problem: what to do with vast amounts of chlorine waste?

So are we trapped into using toxic PVC by an inexorable chemical supply chain glitch?

Not necessarily. European manufacturers have launched a significant effort to improve the sustainability of PVC. Because the new European REACH law will highly regulate chemicals with dangers like those of the stabilizers and plasticizers used in PVC, vinyl plastics soon would be "unsustainable" unless they are made substantially less toxic. Immediately.

European PVC manufacturers have already phased out cadmium and are ahead of their phase-out timeline goals for lead, replacing these stabilizers with much safer Calcium-based chemicals. PVC manufacturers are also working with longer-chain phthalate molecules as plasticizers. Long-chain phthalates have the same chemistry at one end of the molecule - so it can still do its job as a plasticizer - but have more atoms in the tail of the molecule - making it so big that it cannot cause such toxic consequences in the body. These longer molecules are also more securely trapped in the polymer matrix, and less likely to migrate out.

Finally, the European program is funding efforts to collect and recycle PVC, with successes in both rigid and flexible PVC recycling - although the recycling constitutes a small fraction of all PVC waste still.

So it comes down to this: ban PVC and we face two negative consequences. First, we lose its valuable functionality for cost-effective piping infrastructure, construction materials such as vinyl window frames credited with decreasing energy use, and many other benefits. And second, we are still stuck with tons of chlorine waste which may be harder to deal with than end-of-life PVC.

Or keep PVC, and force manufacturers to move as quickly as possible to "sustainable PVC." Given all the pluses and minuses, this is probably the sensible route forward.

But in the meantime, we support the resolution of the APHA help to keep questionable materials out of the environment of our children and other vulnerable populations until they are proven safe. And we support any action to increase the transparency of which chemicals are used - especially wherever babies, children, or pregnant women may be exposed.

More on Phthalates

Maternal Phthalate Exposure Linked to Decreased Mental and Motor Development      
What Are Plastics Doing to My Kids?     
Do Babies Exposed to Phthalates Have Smaller Penises?