How to Find and Avoid Toxic Vinyl (PVC) in Your Home


Feature story - May 28, 2003
Construction applications represent some two-thirds of all PVC use. As a building material PVC is cheap, easy-to-install, and easy to replace. While on its surface PVC may appear to be the ideal building material, it has high environmental and human health costs that its manufacturers fail to tell consumers.

Because of its majority chlorine content, when PVC burns in fires two extremely hazardous substances, hydrogen chloride gas and dioxin are formed which present both acute and chronic health hazards to building occupants, fire fighters and surrounding communities. In addition, when PVC burns, some 100 different toxic compounds are produced.

Pyramid of Plastics

The ranking on the pyramid focuses on the toxic characteristics of the potential alternative materials. It provides a qualitative ranking based on environmental and health problems of PVC, addressing the production, additives, product emissions during use, disposal and recycling. It does not include raw materials and energy inputs and therefore does not address all criteria of a life cycle analysis. The pyramid provides guidance for interim steps on the route to clean production. Keep in mind, no petroleum-based plastic is sustainable as we move to a materials economy based on appropriateness, renewability and efficiency.

  1. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other halogenated plastics
  2. Polyurethane (PU), Polystyrene (PS), Acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), Polycarbonate (PC)
  3. Polyethylene-terephthalate (PET)
  4. Polyolefins (PE,PP,etc.)
  5. Bio-based plastics
The natural fire retardancy of PVC is a double-edged sword in that building materials may smolder for long periods of time giving off hydrogen chloride gas long before visible signs of fire appear. Hydrogen chloride gas, is a corrosive, highly toxic gas that can cause skin burns and severe long-term respiratory damage.

Produced unintentionally during PVC fires, dioxin is one of the most toxic substances known, and has been found to cause cancer and reproductive disorders. PVC fires produce hundreds to thousands times more dioxin than other common materials including wood or other plastics. As dioxin persists in soil for long periods of time, a single fire can lead to long lasting health impacts. A large PVC fire in Hamilton, Ontario in 1997 was a major burden for that town. Not only will the damage to equipment and buildings, the follow-up health studies, and the clean up cost millions of taxpayer dollars, the contamination could persist for decades.

In addition to fire hazards materials made from PVC bring other potential hazards. For instance, PVC products such as vinyl flooring can release chemical softeners called phthalates. PVC flooring has been associated with increases in respiratory sensitization (asthma). Lead additives in PVC mini-blinds were found to cause lead poisoning in some children. Plumbers have also complained about toxic glues used to fit PVC pipes, while some studies suggest that toxic chemicals can leach out of PVC pipes.

Architects, building contractors, and consumers also need to be aware of the environmental and health impacts caused by the production and disposal of materials they use. The production of PVC and its feedstocks, vinyl chloride monomer and ethylene dichloride results in the release of hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment each year, mainly in poor, communities of color in the Louisiana and Texas. PVC production is also a large source of dioxin into the environment. See the Greenpeace PVC factsheet for more information.

Finally, when incinerated, PVC produces dioxin. In fact, PVC is the largest source of chlorine (needed for dioxin production) in municipal waste incinerators. While the PVC industry applauds its efforts to recycle PVC materials, the industry has the poorest recycling record of all plastics. Less than 1% of post-consumer PVC is recycled in the U.S. Recently, the Association of [Post consumer] [PLASTIC] Recyclers (APR) stated its position on PVC, "We're going to view this material as a contaminant, and you sure won't find PVC packaging listed as a recycled plastic in APR's revised design guidelines."

Environmental Building News wrote in its January, 1998 issue that "while Greenpeace has been most vocal regarding environmental and health concerns with PVC (vinyl), they are by no means the only voice out there expressing such concerns. There is widespread concern within the environmental and toxicology communities, not only about PVC and the products associated with its manufacture and disposal, but also about chemicals that are added to PVC to give it specific properties for building product applications. The plasticizer DEHP, for example, has been the focus of recent concern. "we stand by our concerns about PVC-based building products for both environmental and health reasons."--ebn, January 1998, page 3.]

Given the well-established health and environmental hazards associated with the PVC lifecycle and the availability of safer and more environmentally friendly substitutes, many of which are both cost and performance competitive, common sense dictates the need to identify and use alternative materials. In fact, the position of the International Association of Firefighters, which represents fire fighters in the U.S. and Canada is: "Due to its intrinsic hazards, we support efforts to identify and use alternative building materials that do not pose as much risk as PVC to fire fighters, building occupants or communities."

By providing this information Greenpeace does not necessarily imply one product or manufacturer is better than another. It is the responsibility of the buyer to study the alternatives and make their own educated choices regarding alternatives to PVC

For assistance looking for healthier and more environmentally-friendly choices, check out our international database on construction material alternatives to PVC.