“Poison Plastic,” “Toxic Plastic,” or “Pandora’s Poison”: There is no shortage of unsavory monikers used to describe polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and the vinyl products made from it.
Few materials have been vilified as much as PVC, which has come under fire by the green building community over the last twenty years for containing hazardous materials and releasing toxic chemicals during manufacture, use, and disposal. All the while, the PVC industry, buoyed by incredible demand for the material, argues that complaints are exaggerated and emphasizes that it is made from “common salt”—implying that it is harmless.
Let’s take a look at the history of PVC in the building industry, the realities of PVC production in 2014, and how this decades-long debate has informed our view of building products in general.
PVC: Still Popular
PVC is an extremely versatile plastic resin. It is found in pipe, wire insulation, flooring, window frames, wallcoverings, carpet backing, and a host of consumer products. It can be formulated to be rigid or flexible, clear or opaque, and finished products made from PVC are lightweight, inexpensive, durable, and UV-, chemical-, and corrosion-resistant. This versatility has helped make PVC the third most widely used plastic in the world behind polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP).
A brief history
PVC was first synthesized in its raw form in 1835, but it wasn’t until the creation of flexible, or plasticized, versions in the late 1920s that PVC was made into functional products. It was used as a rubber substitute in World War II and in building and consumer goods after the war.
Worldwide, about three million tons of PVC were produced in 1965. And “approximately 7.5 million tons were produced in the U.S. alone in 2012, with more than 70% of that used in the building and housing industries,” according to Allen Blakey, vice president of industry and government affairs at the Vinyl Institute.
Through the 1960s, PVC production—like many industrial processes—was not considered particularly hazardous. Vinyl chloride, the “monomer” known as VCM and the primary ingredient of PVC, was even used as an aerosol propellant in hairspray. All this changed in the 1970s, when exposure to VCM was linked to the liver cancer angiosarcoma in workers in PVC plants. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration soon banned its use in consumer goods, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations limited worker exposure, which forced the PVC industry to redesign its production process to reduce emissions.
While those moves reined PVC in a bit, its battles were only beginning. In the early 1990s, Greenpeace launched a campaign cataloguing the negative environmental impacts of halogens and chlorine-based industries, focusing first on pulp and paper processing and then on PVC (EBN’s oft-cited 1994 article “Should We Phase Out PVC?” was part of that era). According to Bill Walsh, executive director of the Healthy Building Network, “The bond between the halogens and organic matter are so strong, the chemicals provide outstanding performance in their targeted use, but then they are almost impossible to deal with effectively as emissions or waste. PVC comes into play because it is by far the single largest ‘sink’ for chlorine, or any halogen.”
PVC became the most scrutinized building material—even more so in the 2000s when, at the urging of its membership, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) considered a credit for its LEED rating systems that would have discouraged PVC use. USGBC reported in 2007 that other materials can be worse than PVC (depending on the application) and that an across-the-board ban could be counterproductive; but that didn’t put an end to concerns, particularly in regard to other ingredients in PVC products, such as heavy-metal stabilizers and phthalate plasticizers. PVC is now restricted in hospitals run by Kaiser Permanente, and green building programs such as Cradle to Cradle and the Living Building Challenge have banned it via red lists.
Amanda Sturgeon, vice president of the International Living Future Institute and head of the Living Building Challenge, summed up her organization’s policy: “When we put PVC on the Red List in 2009, we took the precautionary approach because we had concerns about phthalates and chlorine, the limited ability to recycle it, and health of the environment and workers.” (See “The Precautionary Principle” for more on that approach.)