A study of the connections between allergies and indoor pollutants turns up a link between vinyl flooring and autism, prompting calls for more-specific research
In a Pro/Con GreenBuildingAdvisor forum published in January, two experts offered their opposing views on whether vinyl is green.
Patrick Moore, chairman and chief scientist of Greenspirit Consultancy Ltd., argued that life-cycle analyses of vinyl show it is environmentally friendly, and that its affordability, renewability, and durability make it an excellent green building material.
Bill Walsh, founder and executive director of Healthy Building Network, emphasized that the heavy use of chlorine gas in vinyl production and the release of chemical by-products and phthalate plasticizers during vinyl’s life cycle disqualify it as a green building material.
Now we have a new hook for the debate. Last week, Environmental Health News published a story about research conducted by Swedish and U.S. scientists that attempted to examine links between allergies and indoor pollutants. One of the findings – a correlation that surprised and puzzled the researchers – was that families with autistic children were twice as likely to have vinyl flooring, as opposed to wood or linoleum flooring, in their homes.
Unexpected, and inconclusive, findings
To be sure, the scientists relied on questionnaires for their data, hadn’t measured phthalate levels in the households studied, and cautioned against drawing conclusions about the apparent link between phthalates released by vinyl flooring and incidents of autism. (Vinyl flooring is common in Sweden, the story notes, although uncommon in U.S. bedrooms.)
The autism-phthalate link “turned up virtually by accident,” Bernard Weiss, a professor of environmental medicine at University of Rochester and a co-author of the study, told EHN, adding that the findings were “intriguing and baffling at the same time.”
Of the study’s 4,779 children between the ages of 6 and 8, 72 had autism, including 60 boys, the story notes. The researchers found four environmental factors associated with autism: vinyl flooring, the mother’s smoking, family economic problems, and condensation on windows, which indicates poor ventilation.
Pediatricians have been curious about phthalates’ potential dangers for some time, noted one of the story’s readers, citing a June 2003 Reuters Health article on the subject headlined “Pediatricians Call for More Action on Phthalates.”
The American Chemistry Council responded to the study by underscoring its inconclusiveness regarding vinyl flooring. The material emits “extremely low” levels of phthalates because the compounds are heavy molecules with low volatility, the ACC said in a statement, and because chances are slight that wear and tear might cause particles to be released as dust.
In any case, the ACC and the Swedish study’s researchers agree that a more focused study of possible links between autism and indoor air pollutants could go a long way toward resolving the debate over vinyl’s worthiness as a building material.