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Pro/Con: Vinyl is Lethal

Posted on Jan 10 2009 by Daniel Morrison

From Cradle to Grave, It's the Worst Choice

The environmental, health, and social equity impacts of vinylCommon term for polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In chemistry, vinyl refers to a carbon-and-hydrogen group (H2C=CH–) that attaches to another functional group, such as chlorine (vinyl chloride) or acetate (vinyl acetate). throughout its life cycle – from production to use to disposal – make it the worst plastic for the environment and the antithesis of a green building material.

Production

Vinyl is the only plastic, and the only major building material, made from high volumes of chlorine – chlorine gas, that is. Thus there is an unfortunate domino effect tied to vinyl’s chlorine content (which in final products can exceed 50% by weight) that is not present in the life cycles of alternative materials. In fact, vinyl production requires consuming in excess of 40% of the chlorine gas produced in this country. That is the largest use of the gas in the world. By comparison, 5% of the nation's chlorine gas is used to disinfect water – and that includes sewage treatment.

By itself, the extensive use of chlorine gas raises myriad concerns. Antiterrorism experts cited in an article published in 2002 by The Washington Post say there is "little doubt that [production] plants storing large amounts of chlorine and other toxic chemicals are potential terrorist targets." These chemicals are even bigger liabilities while in transit, as the Wall Street Journal showed by following graffiti artists as they "tagged" chlorine tank cars within sight of the U.S. Capitol building, long after 9-11.

Vinyl production generates another set of issues. Among the most important by-products of the PVC life cycle are dioxin, ethylene dichloride (EDC), and vinyl chloride monomer(VCM). The formation of dioxin – a nondegradable organic compound that is one of the most potent carcinogens known to science (there is no “safe” dose) and one to which every American is exposed – is a direct consequence of vinyl’s chlorine content. Dioxin compounds are never manufactured intentionally but are produced accidentally whenever chlorine gas is used or chlorine-based organic chemicals are burned or processed under reactive conditions.

Formation of dioxins has been documented in production of chlorine, synthesis of other vinyl feedstocks, burning of vinyl products in accidental fires, incineration of hazardous wastes from vinyl production, and perhaps most surprisingly, by fires in landfills containing vinyl solid waste. When its entire life cycle is considered, vinyl appears to be associated with more dioxin formation than any other single product.

Vinyl’s other major chemical components – EDC and VCM – have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. VCM is classified as a known human carcinogen, and EDC is a probable human carcinogen. Hazardous by-products are formed throughout the PVC life cycle. At numerous points in the vinyl life cycle, very large quantities of hazardous organochlorine by-products are formed accidentally and released into the environment.

Not surprisingly, VCM production facilities are major polluters. The feedstocks, additives, and by-products produced and released during the life cycle of PVC have been shown to cause a range of health problems, in some cases at extremely low doses. These problems include:

• Cancer
• Disruption of the endocrine system
• Reproductive impairment
• Impaired child development and birth defects
• Neurotoxicity (damage to the brain or its function)
• Immune system suppression.

Severe contamination of communities and waterways in the vicinity of VCM production facilities has been documented. In Louisiana, for example, significantly elevated levels of dioxins have been found in the blood of people living near a VCM facility, several communities have been evacuated due to VCM contamination of groundwater, and extremely high levels of highly persistent, bioaccumulative by-products attributable to VCM production have been found in local waterways.

Use

In its pure form, PVC is rigid and brittle. To make flexible vinyl products, such as roofing materials, floor tiles, and wall coverings, plasticizers must be added to PVC in large quantities. These plasticizers may constitute up to 60 percent of the final product by weight. The dominant group of plasticizers used in vinyl is a class of compounds called phthalates – esters of phthalic acid that pose considerable health and environmental hazards, including increased risk of cancer, asthma, reproductive damage, and obesity.

Vinyl is the only major building material in which phthalates are used extensively, and it accounts for about 90 percent of total phthalate consumption. Phthalates are not chemically bonded to the plastic but are merely mixed with the polymer during formulation. They therefore migrate out of the plastic over time into air, water, or other substances with which vinyl comes in contact. Phthalate levels in indoor air in buildings with PVC are typically many times higher than in outdoor air. Phthalate accumulation in suspended and sedimented indoor dusts is particularly high, with concentrations in dust as high as 1,000 parts per million.

Because phthalates are semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), not volatile organic compounds (VOCs), they are not accounted for in most indoor air quality (IAQIndoor air quality. Healthfulness of an interior environment; IAQ is affected by such factors as moisture and mold, emissions of volatile organic compounds from paints and finishes, formaldehyde emissions from cabinets, and ventilation effectiveness.) tests, which focus only on VOCs. Thus, vinyl products can obtain IAQ certifications even though they leach phthalates, whose contributions to reproductive-system impairment include infertility, testicular damage, reduced sperm count, suppressed ovulation, and abnormal development and function of the testes and male reproductive tract in laboratory animals. They are known carcinogens in laboratory animals.

Finally, large quantities of vinyl are burned in accidental building fires, which release significant amounts of dioxin into the air and into whatever water is used by emergency services to contain the fire. Obviously unintentional fires release many chemicals and gases. But the dioxins they release could be drastically reduced by the replacement of vinyl building products with non-chlorinated materials.

Disposal

Most PVC products eventually end up in landfills. Given that there are an estimated 8,000 landfill fires every year, the chances of PVC products burning after disposal are higher than you might think. The worst dioxin releases, it turns out, are from these uncontrolled fires, making them one of the largest contributors of carcinogenic dioxin to our environment, and making PVC the largest factor in those releases. After an exhaustive analysis, the U.S. Green Building Council concluded, “When we add end of life with accidental landfill fires and backyard burning, the additional risk of dioxin emissions puts PVC consistently among the worst materials for human health impacts .”

Most PVC is thrown away because it is extremely difficult to recycle. This situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Because each PVC product contains a unique mix of additives, post-consumer recycling of mixed PVC products is difficult and cannot yield vinyl products with qualities equivalent to the original. PVC products impede municipal plastics recycling, fouling the production lines of other plastics recycling operations, leading plastics recyclers to describe vinyl as a contaminant. Even after 20 years of effort in the U.S., the PVC industry has been unable to establish a credible recycling program or reduce net production of virgin PVC.

Despite all of these negatives, there remains some confusion about whether or not vinyl is a green building material because some building products containing vinyl are qualified for LEED credits. But those credits typically reward attributes that have nothing to do with the toxicity of the vinyl in the product. Vinyl roofing membranes get an energy efficiency credit because they are white and reflective, just like other roofing membranes. Vinyl windows, like many windows, may earn energy efficiency credits because of the properties of the window glass. But the vinyl itself is not a green building material, and in fact the state of New York denied vinyl flooring a green building tax credit in 2003 because the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation determined that the material offered no unique environmental benefits.

The question of vinyl’s suitability as a green material also persists because vinyl-product manufacturers and trade groups have falsely created the impression that there is a raging “debate” about whether or not vinyl is eco-friendly. But one searches in vain for anyone who champions vinyl as a green building product who does not have an interest in the industry.

After careful investigations of vinyl’s properties and the costs and methods used to produce and dispose of it, organizations as diverse as Kaiser Permanente health care, Apple, Whole Foods Market, and Wal-Mart Stores have committed to phase out vinyl. Firestone Building Products stopped offering vinyl products, citing environmental concerns, even thought they were a profitable product line, and Forbo Flooring calls vinyl an unsustainable product – even though the company still sells it in Europe!

So, does vinyl belong in a green home? Only if it’s already there, since there is no ecologically sustainable way to deal with the waste!

Read an opposing view: Vinyl is Green



Image Credits:

  1. Courtesy of Bill Walsh

1.
Jan 19, 2009 7:07 PM ET

Vinyl is Toxic
by Annette Stelmack

AWESOME post!! Thank you for a clear and concise reflection on the toxicity of vinyl products. For over a decade, I have been on my soapbox taking a stand against the use of vinyl products for interior finishes and furnishings of any kind. As Bill stated, PVC-products poison the air, water, and soil with dioxins – from birth to grave. Indoor air quality is profoundly affected by the out gassing of the hazardous chemicals during manufacturing and during/after installation of the products. If a fire should breakout, the fumes are deadly. Additionally, vinyl does not breath – moisture is trapped between the sub-flooring, wall board or upholstery leading to the macrobiotic formation of mold.
In 2002, after viewing the movie ‘Blue Vinyl’ I went cold turkey and took a personal stand - no more vinyl for any of my projects and clients – why would we select a known carcinogen for the interior and exterior finishes when there are equal and superiors products that perform the same, or even better.
I’d love to hear your comments – Annette Stelmack – Sustainable Interior Designer


2.
Jan 18, 2010 8:54 AM ET

Vinyl
by P. Baillargeon

As much as I detest the look and feel of vinyl siding and think it a good idea to reduce our footprint on this planet, you lost me with your terrorist attack argument. Pandering to paranoia is not an indication of sane argumentation. Worthy of George Walker B!

Pat


3.
Jan 18, 2010 9:39 AM ET

Vinyl
by Erich

I really don't like vinyl flooring, and I consider myself an environmentalist, but I find articles like this very irritating. I recognize that it's a short summary, not a definitive study, but making multiple uncited, unsubstantiated claims such as " it causes cancer, it suppresses the immune system" etc., just makes this sound like ignorant scare-mongering. Does it only show these effects in-vitro, or in real world situations? Laboratory bottles of sodium chloride, table salt, used to list "reproductive abnormalities" as a potential danger on their labels. I don't really want to know how much they gave the rats, or where they put it, but the point is that these kinds of statements can be extremely misleading. It doesn't help that this article and the one in support of vinyl seem to directly contradict each other on factual issues. A little editorial nudging of both authors to document better would have been nice here. I came away from reading these without much more insight than I had before.


4.
Jan 18, 2010 11:37 AM ET

I like to see you find a
by Ronnie

I like to see you find a fire(unintentional or not) that does not release deadly toxins. I do believe Vinyl may not be completely sustainable but the upkeep of a product should be viewed as a reason to use. Vinyl products have almost no upkeep when used unlike other types of products. The cost of initial and upkeep down road is much lower than most other types. I for one would prefer to have the lower cost with "some frootprint" then a huge cost that won't make a difference in energy in the future.


5.
Jan 18, 2010 10:22 PM ET

Yes, vinyl is an evil, crappy building material!
by jamie

I own and operate I'm Your Man!Construction, and while it is sometimes difficult and expensive to stay away from vinyl, I urge my clients to do just that. Yes, anything that burns is toxic, but ask any firefighter if he/she would rather fight a fire in a lumberyard, or a factory producing vinyl products, and I think we all know what they would say.
One thing that has not been dealt with here is that vinyl building products, especially windows, but also doors and siding, should be, as a friend of mine likes to say, not called replacement, but replaceable. Show me a 10 year old vinyl window that is not missing bits, or security clips, or is chipped, and I bet it will still be in it's original packaging. Don't like the colour of that vinyl window or siding or door trim? Landfill it and get a new one. As I write this, the 70 year old wooden windows in my office work almost as well as when they were put in. The 10 year old ones in the front of my house (I did not install those, they came with the house. I wish I had the old ones back, though if I knew what they looked like, it would probably be depressing ), however, are all missing their fragile, non-replaceable, no longer available security clips. What about energy efficiency? You can install an efficient wood replacement window. You can get or have made low e storm windows. If you replace a window several times in the life of a house (and please do not say that it does not happen. I am renovating a commercial building , and a vinyl window is missing a little track. Useless without it. Bound for the dump) your precious energy savings are out the window (pun intended). We need to think of energy and the environmental footprint, not just what it costs to heat our houses, but what it costs to make and ship these things, and replace them, and pave the roads that lead to the dump where they go in 10 years when the styles change and a new colour is needed, and what the impact on our health care systems is from the crap in our drinking water leaching out of those dumps.
Finally, is there anything as jaw-droppingly ugly as a heritage home that has had it's front windows unsympathetically replaced with brilliant white vinyl? Actually, there is. One in my neighbourhood has brown vinyl, faux leaded glass windows.


6.
Jan 20, 2010 11:03 PM ET

comparing rotten apples to apples
by Brian

Are there bad and "evil" products in all building materials? Yes. We have to look at each product on its own. There are cheap wood, rubber, steel, sheet rock, paint, etc products that are used everyday that meet LEED certification that are going to cause as much or more dioxins in and out of a fire. They are going to fill up landfills and burn just as fast as vinyl products. Diet drinks may have as many human carcinogens as vinyl products. Goodness knows they have caused lab animals cancer for years. Are there cheap PVC products on the market that cause asthma attacks? Yes along with wood, fabrics, paper and many other products. Don't use those products. As for the windows, do wood windows have safety clips? All products have pros and cons. About pollution, the production of vinyl is very clean when it comes to the chlorine argument it is in a closed loop system. If you don't see the scare mongering about terror attacks you just don't want to. Why are there no linoleum production plants in the US.? Check it out, they cannot pass our emissions control. So is it ok that we let other countries produce it so we can use it as a green building product here. Point is there are very good vinyl products out there that have great VOC and SVOC ratings. They are affordable and have great life cycles. For the biggest fact check: there are companies out there recycling PVC vinyl and have been for years. They take the base, wall coverings, flooring, etc and recycle it back into those same products creating up to a 75% post industrial product. So don't just check the vinyl products check the facts on all products and give the end user an energy efficient, low maintenance building we can all be proud of. Check the fine print - some bamboo (you know THE Green material) products will not meet LEED VOC requirments. Because of this, saying "Vinyl is evil" is like saying "Bamboo is evil".


7.
Apr 28, 2010 1:19 PM ET

What is the Best Building Material to Use For Home Exterior Trim
by JP

Hello Dan,
In a recent email, you recommended Western Red Cedar as the best wood alternative to cellular PVC composite exterior trim. I'm not a construction professional, but I've decided that PVC is not a material that I'll be putting on my home. A few more questions:
1. What are the qualities of Western Red Cedar that make it the best wood for use as home
exterior trim in Central Massachusetts?
2. Is Western Red Cedar also generally harvested in small pieces that are finger-jointed together?
If so, why can we expect it to last longer than the pine trim that I generally see being used, but
which I'm told is very prone to rot?
3. Approximately how much longer can a homeowner expect the Western Red Cedar to last (than
pre-primed pine)?
4. Do you know of any companies in my area (Central Mass.) where Western Red Cedar can be
purchased?
5. Approximately how much more expensive is Western Red Cedar than the pre-primed pine
alternative?
6. Should Western Red Cedar also be pre-primed as does pine?
Thank you.


8.
May 20, 2010 6:30 AM ET

Vinyl windows
by Eileen

Environmentalist & GBC folks
Help!
I have been researching windows for a home renovation for some time. I can't get over the fact that many of the excellent windows choices that are anywhere near affordable are vinyl. I spoke with a serious dealer and indicated taht I wanted fiberglass. His response was approximately $2 000 / windows. Does anyone have a recommendation as to low u, fiberglass or composit? Does the improved efficiency really outweigh the negative aspects of vinyl? Isn't this like saying nuclear for cleaner air?

Appreciated

Eileen


9.
Dec 9, 2010 10:02 AM ET

If not vinyl, what other
by Anonymous

If not vinyl, what other options are there? Mr. Walsh, any suggestions for other affordable alternatives.


10.
Dec 9, 2010 10:10 AM ET

Response to Anonymous
by Martin Holladay

Anonymous,
There are a great many siding choice available, ranging from inexpensive (rough-sawn board & batten) to pricey (brick veneer).

You might be interested in this page from the GBA Encyclopedia: Siding Choices.


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