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Where the Rubber Meets the Road in Building Products (April 24, 2013)
Polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as "PVC" or "vinyl," is one of the most common synthetic materials. PVC is a versatile resin and appears in thousands of different formulations and configurations. Over 14 billion pounds of PVC are currently produced per year in North America. Approximately 75% of all PVC manufactured is used in construction materials.
Download this fact sheet (PDF File)
PVC: A major environmental health disaster
PVC is the worst plastic from an environmental health perspective, posing major hazards in its manufacture, product life and disposal.
Toxic Manufacturing Byproducts:
Dioxin (the most potent carcinogen known), ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride are unavoidably created in production of PVC and can cause severe health problems, including:
- Endocrine disruption
- Neurological damage
- Birth defects & impaired child development
- Reproductive and immune system damage
In the US, PVC is manufactured predominantly near low-income communities in Texas and Louisiana. The toxic impact of pollution from these factories on these communities has made them a focus in the environmental justice movement.
Dioxin's impact doesn't stop there. As a persistent bioaccumulative toxin (PBT), it does not breakdown rapidly and travels around the globe, accumulating in fatty tissue and concentrating as it goes up the food chain. Dioxins from Louisiana manufacturing plants migrate on the winds and concentrate in Great Lakes fish. Dioxins are even found in hazardous concentrations in the tissues of whales and polar bears and in Inuit mother's breast milk. The dioxin exposure of the average American already poses a calculated risk of cancer of greater than 1 in 1,000 - thousands of times greater than the usual standard for acceptable risk. Most poignantly, dioxins concentrate in breast milk to the point that human infants now receive high doses, orders of magnitude greater than those of the average adult.
A 2002 Rand report for the U.S. Air Force identified chlorine gas storage and transport facilities as among the top chemical targets for a terrorist attack and cited examples of a number of such threats and attacks already carried out around the world. As a prime feedstock for PVC, chlorine makes the PVC manufacturing plants and the trains that supply them highly vulnerable. A simple terrorist attack could release a toxic cloud that would spread for miles, potentially endangering millions of lives.
The best security is to switch to safer materials that don't require chlorine. PVC production is the biggest single use of chlorine and so reduction in its use represents the largest single step we can take to reduce the risk of chlorine disasters, accidental or intentional.
PVC is useless without the addition of a plethora of toxic chemical stabilizers - such as lead, cadmium and organotins - and phthalate plasticizers. These leach, flake or outgas from PVC over time raising risks that include asthma, lead poisoning and cancer.
Deadly Fire Hazard:
PVC poses a great risk in building fires, as it releases deadly gases long before it ignites, such as hydrogen chloride which turns to hydrochloric acid when inhaled. As it burns, whether accidentally or in waste incineration, it releases yet more toxic dioxins. PVC burning in landfill fires may now be the single largest source of dioxin releases to the environment.
Can't be readily recycled:
The multitudes of additives required to make PVC useful make large scale post consumer recycling nearly impossible for most products and interfere with the recycling of other plastics. Of an estimated 7 billion pounds of PVC thrown away in the US, only 14 million - less than 1/2 of 1 percent - is recycled. The Association of Post Consumer Plastics Recyclers declared efforts to recycle PVC a failure and labeled it a contaminant in 1998.
PVC in construction materials
While the many problems associated with PVC throughout its lifecycle far outweigh the benefits, the construction industry has been unaware of its true cost and long considered it a cheap convenient material. Piping, vinyl siding, and vinyl flooring are the largest and most familiar uses of PVC. Roof membranes have been a growing area. It is also used in electrical wire insulation, conduit, junction boxes, wall coverings, carpet backing, window and door frames, shades and blinds, shower curtains, furniture, flues, gutters, down spouts, waterstops, weatherstrip, flashing, moldings and elsewhere. Fortunately, for each of these uses, there exist a wide range of cost effective alternative materials that pose less of a health hazard to workers and the public at large.
Cast iron, steel, concrete vitrified clay, copper, and plastics, such as
HDPE (high density polyethylene).
Fiber-cement board, stucco, recycled or reclaimed or FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified
sustainably harvested wood, OSB (oriented strand board), brick, and polypropylene.
- Roofing Membranes
TPO (thermoplastic polyolefin), EPDM (ethylene propylene diene monomer), NBP (nitrile butadiene polymer) and low-slope metal roofing.
- Flooring & Carpet
Linoleum, bamboo, ceramic tile, carpeting with natural fiber backing or polyolefins, reclaimed or FSC certified sustainably harvested wood, cork, rubber, concrete, and nonchlorinated plastic polymers.
- Wall Coverings & Furniture
Natural fibers such as wood and wool, polyethylene, polyester, and paint.
- Electrical Insulation and Sheathing
Halogen free, LLDPE (linear low-density polyethylene), XLP and XLPE (thermoset crosslinked polyethylene)
- Windows & Doors
Recycled, reclaimed or FSC certified sustainably harvested wood, fiberglass, and aluminum.
Join the move away from PVC
Architectural firms, health care systems and hospitals, governments and major corporations all over the world are dropping PVC. A wide range of major corporations including Microsoft, HP, Shaw, Wal-Mart, Firestone, Nike, Mattel, Lego, Johnson & Johnson, GM, VW, and Honda have begun the switch to alternative materials. San Francisco and New York State have banned PVC pipe. An increasing number of major projects, from the U.S. EPA headquarters in Washington, DC to the 2000 Olympic village in Sydney, Australia, have vastly reduced or completely eliminated use of PVC. More government agencies are eliminating it from wiring, flooring and other applications, including the US Navy, Air Force and NASA. References are available in the PDF version of this factsheet.
Replacing PVC in your projects is easier than you may think. A number of resource guides are available to help you find green construction materials. But beware: some construction materials labeled "green" actually contain recycled PVC/vinyl and frequently require virgin PVC mixed with the recycled.
The Healthy Building Network web site includes charts of PVC free building materials, plus links to some of the best of the web's other green building resources. For those specifying for health care systems and hospitals, HBN’s health care section offers a number of useful resources, including “Why Health Care is Moving Awaay from PVC."
What you can do
The U.S. Green Building Council has invited comments about its proposed methodology for evaluating a PVC-related credit within its green building rating system or LEED.
The first, and possibly only stakeholders meeting was held on February 18, 2004, in Washington, DC, but it is unclear when the USGBC will issue its decision. (To read about the meeting click here.)
You can become involved in three ways:
- Send a letter to USGBC.
HBN has submitted to USGBC comments with specific recommendations about how to move forward with a vinyl avoidance credit. If you agree with HBN's position, send a letter in support of our testimony.
Choose the letter that's right for you, either from the perspective of an environmental health activist perspective or a green builder.
Environmental Health Letter
- Become a stakeholder in USGBC's PVC credit process:
Visit the USGBC site and sign up to become a stakeholder in the PVC Task Group (www.usgbc.org). They'll send you updates on the process as it develops.
- Receive updates from HBN:
Sign up for HBN's newsletter and we'll send updates on the USGBC process, as well as information about the nationwide movement to eliminate vinyl from buildings.
Download this fact sheet (PDF File)