Environmental Health - Vinyl: Sustainable, Flexible Friend Or Poison Plastic? Video Face Off
Vinyl is everywhere. In any room of your house you are likely to find it, whether in the form of toys, bottles and electrical appliances or even the pipes carrying your water. To manufacturers it is thought of as a flexible friend - a plastic easy to produce, sustainable and highly malleable. But to a growing number of campaigners it is thought of as the ''poison plastic'', and a huge threat to our everyday environmental health.
What if the bottle you drink your water from, the pipes carrying water to and from your house, the toy your baby is chewing on, the shower curtain in your bathroom were all highly toxic and causing you and your family untold harm? These are the claims of the anti-PVC lobby, hotly refuted by those that claim that PVC is in fact essential to modern life.
Photo credit: Tomasz Kowalczyk
In this video face off, these two points of view are placed side by side and their claims placed head to head. These two videos - along with full transcriptions - are made to square off over one central issue - is vinyl a miracle plastic, or a menace in disguise?
In the red corner we have The Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a grassroots consumer campaign hoping to put an end to the use of vinyl (a.k.a. PVC) due to claims that it causes cancer and birth defects, and negatively impacts upon the health of everyone that comes into contact with it.
In the blue corner, Dr. Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace and now a consultant to industry on the issue of sustainability. Moore claims that PVC is in fact a highly flexible, sustainable and far from damaging plastic, and that anti-vinyl campaigners cannot back up their allegations with sound scientific research.
So, which is the case? Is PVC a flexible, affordable solution to sustainability, cleanliness and even issues facing developing nations, or is it a malignant cancer buried deep into the everyday lives of people like you and me?
Read on to find out what each has to say about the issue, and decide for yourself.
The Case Against Vinyl
So what are the claims against the ''poison plastic''? In the first of two videos, produced by the The Center for Health, Environment and Justice a number of powerful allegations are leveled at the plastic. As you will see for yourself, these include claims that:
- PVC is impossible to recycle
- PVC is a danger at the manufacturing, domestic use and disposal phases of its lifespan
- PVC releases dangerous chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects
I want to take a look at these claims and several more that are connected to them after the video, which takes an entertaining, but also deathly serious, approach to what campaigners like those working for the CHEJ consider to be a pressing and serious issue. The video is an animated piece of 3' 31" and packs a lot of information into its very short running time. A complete transcription can be found at the end of this article.
Breakdown of the Anti-PVC Perspective
Photo credit: Marc Iserman
''PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic, commonly referred to as vinyl, is one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created.
PVC is dangerous to human health and the environment throughout its entire life cycle, at the factory, in our homes, and in the trash. Our bodies are contaminated with poisonous chemicals released during the PVC lifecycle, such as mercury, dioxins, and phthalates, which may pose irreversible life-long health threats.
When produced or burned, PVC plastic releases dioxins, a group of the most potent synthetic chemicals ever tested, which can cause cancer and harm the immune and reproductive systems.''
Phthalates - Toxic Softeners Banned by the EU Parliament
They go on to explain that PVC contains a number of toxic additives, including the softeners that make it so flexible - known as phthalates - which were banned from being used in children's toys by the EU Parliament in 2005 due to their health risks, but continue to be used in America due to an agreement between the commerce department and U.S. toy manufacturers.
These key toxic phthalates are suspected carcinogens and reproductive toxicants, and therefore their use in chewable infant toys was considered ill-advised, based on the evidence presented to the EU parliament.
The Recycling Issue
Besides the claims as to the toxicity of PVC-based products, another issue raised is that of recycling. The CHEJ explain that:
''PVC cannot be effectively recycled due to the many different toxic additives used to soften or stabilize PVC, which can contaminate the recycling batch.
Most consumers do not know that a 3 in the recycle symbol indicates that the plastic is made of PVC, and therefore recycle those products, inadvertently rendering thousands of potentially recycled containers useless. In fact just one PVC bottle can contaminate a recycling load of 100,000 PET bottles.''
As such, while PVC is technically as easy to recycle as other plastics, the softeners added to it to afford its malleable, flexible quality render it a contaminant to the recycling of plastics, and thus a potential menace to the recycling process.
The Impact on Low-Income Communities
PVC plants are, apparently, disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of colour, and it is claimed that tests in such areas showed evidence of PVC-based pollution having an impact on residents living in these areas. CHEJ write that:
''Communities surrounding vinyl chloride facilities suffer from groundwater and air pollution.
In 1999, the federal government measured dioxins in blood samples taken from 28 residents who lived near PVC facilities in Louisiana. The testing revealed the average resident has three times more dioxin in his/her blood than the average U.S. citizen.
Workers at PVC plants may face life-long health risks from exposure to cancer-causing vinyl chloride and other hazardous chemicals used to make PVC. These health risks include angiosarcoma of the liver, lung cancer, brain cancer, lymphomas, leukemia, and liver cirrhosis.''
As such, living near PVC production locations, and certainly working within them, would seem to increase the incidence of these health issues if the evidence cited is taken to be reliable. If this is the case, it would seem that the wealthy manufacturers defending the material are nevertheless keen not to have it too close to the communities in which their children grow up.
The Case For Vinyl
The pro-vinyl camp claim that many of the allegations leveled at vinyl from the anti-PVC campaigners are unsubstantiated and politically motivated, rather than based in scientific fact. In vinyl's favour, among extensive vindication and defense of the material from within the industry, it is claimed that vinyl's flexibility, cost-effectiveness and cleanliness make it a key material in - as one example - the health care sector.
Here it is used for a number of purposes - from the floors and walls of operating theaters to blood bags and the gloves used by surgeons. Indeed, if PVC truly is a poison plastic, we are all in serious trouble, as it is somewhat ubiquitous not only in the home, but in the hospitals we rely on in periods of ill health.
In the following video - transcribed in full at the end of this article - Dr Patrick Moore defends PVC, and discusses its benefits. The running time is 4' 17".
Breakdown of the Pro-PVC Perspective
Photo credit: Niels Timmer
PVC is defended, then, on the grounds that it is highly sustainable, flexible and actually more environmentally friendly than alternative plastics. Patrick Moore rests his case on the following grounds:
Sustainability and Cost-Effectiveness
Because PVC has an incredibly long lifespan, using it in manufacturing can save money. This is particularly important in developing countries, where sustainable resources are even more important. If water pipes are made from PVC, for example, they can last for over a hundred years, and as a consequence prove to be very efficient in terms of actual use-value, and in terms of economic savings.
Allegations as to PVC's Toxicity Have Been Disproved
Moore goes on to argue that claims to PVC's toxicity have since been rejected:
''This has been completely rejected by the European commission, full studies on vinyl, and even the green building council of the United States, which is an activist group in many ways, has rejected the criticisms against vinyl.''
While this seems to be supported to a limited extent in terms of the EU Commission's findings, this is far from a blanket refutation, but rather an argument that there are already sufficient health measures in place to guard against PVC toxicity.
PVC is the least Environmentally Damaging Plastic
As PVC is comprised of only 50% fossil fuels, it subsequently draws less on the dwindling supply of these fuels, while other plastics are made from 100% fossil fuels. Thus, the impact also upon global warming is lessened. In addition to its lower carbon footprint, Moore notes that:
''The activists claim that vinyl can't be recycled when it is just as recyclable as any of the other plastics, and as a matter of fact nearly 100% of the scraps that are produced in the manufacture of vinyl are remixed back in and used.''
Thus, vinyl can be recycled, and conserves more energy, and produces less damage to the environment, than the other plastics often presented as alternatives to PVC.
It Doesn't Need Recycling
One of the claims leveled against the PVC industry is the low amount of recycling that takes place within it. Moore argues against this with the logical approach that PVC is less recycled than other materials due to its longevity as a material. He notes that:
''Not a lot of consumer vinyl is recycled. Guess why? It's all still in use. And so it's kind of unfair to charge the vinyl industry with not recycling its product, when, because it's so durable it's still on the sides of houses, it's still buried in the ground in pipes, it's still on the wire as insulation. It hasn't needed to be recycled because it's still in use, because it's so durable.''
Where industries like the paper industry have a much higher rate of recycling, Moore argues, this is because products made with paper have a much shorter shelf life than the durable, long lasting products manufactured from PVC. It isn't recycled as often because there is no need to recycle it.
Conclusions - Who to Believe?
This is far from being an open and shut case, and both sides of the table present some strong claims in favour of their respective arguments. Ultimately, research is still ongoing as to the harmful (or lack of harmful) effects brought about by PVC.
What I personally found in researching this article was that there were few people defending PVC that were not in some way directly financially linked to the PVC industry. While there are hordes of anti-PVC campaigners and supporters, both detailing and offering alternatives to this potentially problematic material, support was difficult to find from objective sources as to why we should continue using this possibly very dangerous material. Claims are made as to its efficacy and the fact that it is incredibly cheap to use, in addition to the fact that this is a highly sustainable material that will last for a very long time.
This is not to say that might makes right, and that finding the truth is as simple as agreeing with the majority, or the largest amount of hits served up by google. If the Anti-PVC rally are to succeed in convincing the general public, they will need to continue to research and provide hard evidence for their case. Equally, those industry insiders defending the cause would do well to seek indepedent, objective verification of their claims as the safety of PVC and its variants.
I would urge anyone reading this, whatever their point of view, to take a deeper look into the claims of both sides and make decisions for themselves based on the information available. Personally, I find it rather unnerving that so much support seems tied a little too closely to the industry that depends on the ongoing use of PVC for its wellbeing.
The case has not been closed on PVC, but even the suspicion of its harmful qualities certainly makes it worth thinking twice before buying potentially toxic toys to put in your baby's mouth, for instance, especially considering the fact that there a great many lists of alternatives to PVC available online.
Is PVC a poison plastic or a highly sustainable, flexible material essential to our everyday lives? You decide.
Transcription - Sam Suds and the Case of PVC: The Poison Plastic
Sam Suds: (voice over)
I was running out of time and the stakes couldn't have been higher. You see my job is protecting the Johnson family from dangerous toxins. Yeah, I'd been a hero in the past, locking away household killers like lead and DDT, but now I was facing the most dangerous toxic offender yet: PVC. The poison plastic. Also known as vinyl.
But the trail had gone cold. Who was this killer with a thousand faces? Where in the house was he hiding, and how do you nail a suspect you can't even ID. Word around the bathroom was I was washed up. And then she floated in.
Girl Duck: Sam Suds?
Sam Suds: What can I do for you, duckface?
Girl Duck: It's this rubber ducky I been seeing. He seemed nice enough at first, but I'm starting to suspect that he ain't made of rubber.
Sam Suds: Whaddya saying?
Girl Duck: I'm saying I think he's... PVC
Sam Suds: (Voice over) Now she had my interest.
What makes you think he's PVC, Ma'am?
Girl Duck: Look at this
Sam Suds: Yah? It's little Timmy Johnson chewing on your boyfriend's head. So, what of it?
Girl Duck: Look closer
Sam Suds: Say, what gives? There's a three on this duck's butt
Girl Duck: What do you think it means, Sam?
Sam Suds: I don't know, sweet feathers. Where can I find this character?
Girl Duck: He usually hangs under the faucet by the bathtub
Sam Suds: Thanks
Girl Duck: Sam?... Be careful
Sam Suds: (voice over) Things were starting to bubble up and I was working myself into a lather. So here I was looking for some squeaky toy in the seediest part of town, where soap wasn't always welcome. The place stunk like a new shower curtain.
Shampoo Bar tender: What do you want?
Sam Suds: I'm looking for PVC. (holds up photo) Does this mean anything to you?
Shampoo Bar tender: It's a kid chewing on a duck
Sam Suds: Yeah, yeah, we're past that. What do you make of that three?
Shampoo Bar tender: I don't know nothing
Sam Suds: Maybe this will jog your memory, squirt (prods him)
Shampoo Bar tender: Okay, okay. Three is the mark of PVC. You see that three, you know it's the poison plastic.
Sam Suds: What else? Spill it! (prods him again)
Shampoo Bar tender: Ehh! Okay! PVC is toxic from start to finish. In the factory, at home and in the trash. You can't even recycle PVC. It contaminates and ruins other recyclable plastics. But worst of all, PVC releases poisonous chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects.
Sam Suds: (voice over) It was worse than I thought. How could they make an innocent little ducky out of PVC?
PVC Duck: Hey, Suds! You looking for me?
Sam Suds: (holding the duck over the toilet) Give me one good reason why I shouldn't flush you right now?
PVC Duck: What good would it do you? This bathroom is full of PVC
Sam Suds: That's a lie. The Johnson's and I have this place under close watch, see?
PVC Duck: The Johnsons? They're the one's who are bringing in all the PVC! Every time they go shopping. Just look at this list. Bottles, toys, shower curtains, even the new siding on the house. You know that new shower curtain smell? That's the smell of toxic chemicals being released.
Sam Suds: (voice over) It was the Johnson's all along. But how could it be? Didn't they know to look for the three? There was no time to lose!
This case is closed, duckface. PVC won't be a problem in this house any more
Girl Duck: How did you do it Sam?
Sam Suds: I just helped the Johnsons cut it off at the source. There's plenty of safe alternatives out there, no need for this family to buy the poison plastic any more.
Transcription - An Overview of the Benefits of Vinyl
A converstaion with Dr Patrick Moore, Ph.D "The Benefits of Vinyl"
Patrick Moore: Hi, my name is Patrick Moore. I found myself in the early seventies one of the founders of Greenpeace here in Vancouver. I spent the next fifteen years working full time for Greenpeace in the top committee. In the mid-seventies I decided to move from confrontation to trying to figure out what the solutions were, because after all there are over six million people that need food, energy and material every day in this world.
What is Vinyl?
One of the main materials we use in our daily lives and in our civilization is plastic. And Vinyl is a very special form of plastic. Most plastics are made directly from oil, and are basically 100% hydrocarbon, whereas vinyl is made from a combination of natural gas, its also a fossil fuel, but the other half of it is salt, so its very unique, there is no other plastic that is made from a fossil fuel and a salt mixed together. And that's why it's called polyvinyl-chloride, because the chlorine that is in salt becomes part of the vinyl polymer, and is therefore a unique plastic that is capable of performing in ways that other plastics cannot.
For example it can be easily softened with plasticizers in order to make it very flexible and soft, or it can be rigid as it is in pipe, and in plastic packaging.
Vinyl: Safe for consumers
The anti-vinyl activists have made a lot of crazy allegations about the effects of vinyl.
For example, they say that chewable baby toys are going to cause health problems in infants. This has been completely rejected by the European commission, full studies on vinyl, and even the green building council of the United States, which is an activist group in many ways, has rejected the criticisms against vinyl.
They say that the reason that shower curtains smell the way they do is because of the chemicals coming from the vinyl, and that's going to give you cancer. This is absolutely false.
Vinyl: Helping Save Lives
On the health side, vinyl is the most common plastic used in healthcare and medicine. That's what blood bags are made from, the gloves that doctors and nurses wear, the hats that they put on, thew wall covering in the hospital rooms, the floor covering - they're made with vinyl because vinyl is easy to clean and maintain in an antiseptic way, and also its a very good barrier to germs, and because it's flexible it can be used for vinyl tubing in blood bags and the like. Very important in medicine.
Vinyl: Safe For the Environment
On the environmental side, vinyl uses less energy than the other plastics in its manufacturing and it certainly uses less fossil fuels, because it's only half fossil fuel, unlike the other plastics which are basically a hundred percent fossil fuel. That means vinyl is more climate friendly than the other plastics. In other words, the global warming impact of vinyl is lower than it is with most of the other plastics.
Vinyl: Life Span and Recycling
The activists claim that vinyl can't be recycled when it is just as recyclable as any of the other plastics, and as a matter of fact nearly 100% of the scraps that are produced in the manufacture of vinyl are remixed back in and used.
Not a lot of consumer vinyl is recycled. Guess why? It's all still in use. And so it's kind of unfair to charge the vinyl industry with not recycling its product, when, because it's so durable it's still on the sides of houses, it's still buried in the ground in pipes, it's still on the wire as insulation. It hasn't needed to be recycled because it's still in use, because it's so durable.
That is why there isn't a huge recycling of vinyl like there is with paper for example, where obviously most paper is ready to be recycled in a very short time after its been manufactured. Vinyl lasts for hundreds of years, in the ground as a piece of pipe and therefore doesn't need to be recycled, and doesn't need to be replaced, which is another good aspect because durability means less cost in maintenance and replacement.
If this debate has piqued your interest, you may want to read further at:
- Greenspirit Strategies - The sustainability-based consultancy Patrick Moore works through
- PVCFree.org - the CHEJ's anti-PVC website, and home of the Sam Suds campaign
- TV Barn posting about the recent anti-PVC HBO documentary Blue Vinyl
- Mother Jones article on the American commerce department crushing the European ban on toxic, PVC baby toys
- EJNet's list of PVC resources, from an anti-perspective
- Vinyl Info's PVC industry point of view, gathering several sources on the efficacy and safety of PVC
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