PVC, the Poison Plastic

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Healthy schools free from toxins are critical to a child’s health and well-being. Most of the time spent during the years that children’s bodily and intellectual capacities are developing is spent inside school buildings. Due to funding crunches across the nation, our schools are in trouble and many are actually threatening our children’s health and ability to learn on a daily basis by using unhealthy building materials and products. Schools that do not have responsible policies on protecting children’s health are forcing students and staff to be exposed to toxic chemicals. An emerging toxic plastic of concern, polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl), is used widespread in schools across the nation.

PVC – the Poison Plastic

VC is the most toxic plastic for our health and environment. No other plastic contains or releases as many dangerous chemicals. These include dioxins, phthalates, vinyl chloride, ethylene dichloride, lead, cadmium, and organotins. There’s no safe way to manufacture, use or dispose of PVC productsi.

Children More At Risk from Toxic Chemicals

Children are not “little adults” – their developing brains and bodies, their metabolism and behaviors make them uniquely vulnerable to harm from toxic chemicals such as those released by the PVC lifecycle:

  • Exposure begins in the womb through the mother’s exposures to toxic chemicals. Infants ingest chemicals through breast milk, formula and contact with their environment.
  • Rapid brain development in the fetus, infants and young children make them more susceptible to harm from chemicals that may impair brain function and development.
  • For their weight, children eat, drink and breathe more than adults – so pound for pound they take in a greater quantity of toxic contaminants. A small exposure translates into a big dose.
  • Children put things in their mouths and spend a lot of time on the floor and ground, so they may ingest chemicals from toys, containers, dirt and dust on a regular basis

Congress Bans Phthalates in Toys – What About Phthalates in Schools?

Phthalates are chemicals used to soften or plasticize PVC products such as flooring, which can be released from PVC into the air inside schools. The phthalates cling to dust and can then be breathed in by children and teachersiii. Over 90% of all phthalates are used in PVC productsiv including many found in schools. Some phthalates such as DEHP have been linked to reproductive problems including shorter pregnancy durationv and premature breast development in girlsvi and sperm damagevii and impaired reproductive development in boysviii . Some studies have also found a correlation between phthalates and obesityix , a growing problem for children across the countryx . Phthalates are highest in children ages 6 to 11, and in womenxi . In 2008, President Bush signed legislation banning phthalates such as DEHP in children’s toysxii. While phthalates have been banned from PVC toys, they’re widespread in PVC products used in schools.

PVC, Asthma and Autism – Are Schoolchildren, Teachers, and Custodians at Risk?

Asthma is a serious, sometimes life-threatening respiratory disease that affects 7 million American children and 16 million adultsxiii . An average of one out of every 13 school-age children has asthma. In fact, asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism: 14.7 million school days are missed each year due to asthmaxiv. In recent years, a number of studies have found a correlation between phthalates emitted from PVC building products and asthma:

  • A study published in 2009 found a statistically significant link between PVC flooring, asthma , and autism spectrum disorder. The study found that children who live in homes with vinyl floors, which can emit phthalates, are twice as likely to have autismxvi.
  • A 2008 study found an association between concentrations of phthalates in indoor dust and wheezing among preschool children. The presence of PVC flooring in the child’s bedroom was the strongest predictor of respiratory ailmentsxvi.
  • A study of 10,851 children found the presence of floor moisture and PVC significantly increased the risk of asthmaxvii.
  • A study among personnel in four geriatric hospitals found asthma symptoms were more common in the two buildings with signs of phthalate degradation in PVC flooringxviii.
  • A study of workers in an office building found they were diagnosed with adult-onset asthma at a rate of about 9 times higher than expected. The researchers identified PVC flooring as the source of chemicals, such as 2-ethyl-l-hexanol, l-butanol, in the airxix.
  • A study of adults working in rooms with plastic wall covering materials were more than twice as likely to develop asthma. These researchers pointed to other recent epidemiologic studies in children conducted in Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia that also found links between PVC, phthalates, and respiratory problemsxx.

PVC Flooring and Indoor Air Quality

Today’s sealed and insulated buildings often result in indoor air that is actually more polluted than the air outside. In short, indoor air pollutants can inhibit a child’s ability to concentrate and learn in the school environment. EPA studies of human exposure to air pollutants indicate that indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times— and occasionally more than 100 times— higher than outdoor levels. The good news is, indoor air pollution can be reduced through good planning and building maintenancexxi. PVC flooring and other PVC products can contribute to poorer indoor air quality as PVC products can off gas chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). A study by the California Air Resources Board found forty chemicals, some of which are toxic, off-gassing from PVC flooringxxii. Another study found PVC flooring can emit chemicals for a period of at least nine months, indicating a persistent risk of toxic exposurexxiii. A study of PVC shower curtains found just one new vinyl shower curtain can release 108 VOC’s into the air over a 28-day period. A number of the chemicals are classified as hazardous air pollutants by the EPA, and even worse, many are untestedxxiv.

PVC Flooring and Unhealthy Cleaning Products

PVC flooring often requires the use of toxic cleaners to keep it durable and shiny. This wax and strip maintenance has long been a source of health concern due to the toxic VOCs such as formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) used in the maintenance products. A life cycle study of flooring installation and maintenance found that the amount of VOCs emitted from a single waxing of a floor may be comparable to the amount of VOCs emitted from the flooring itself over its entire life. While some PVC manufacturers have formulated “no wax” finishes for some of their flooring products, many PVC flooring products still require the use of toxic maintenance productsxxv.

PVC and Dioxin – One of Most Toxic Chemicals Studied

PVC’s lifecycle is uniquely responsible for the release of Dioxins, some of the most toxic chemicals ever studied by the EPA. Dioxins are a class of chemicals unintentionally created from the manufacture and disposal of PVC products, such as vinyl flooring in schools.xxvi Dioxin is a potent cancer-causing agent and is considered to be a “known human carcinogen” by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancerxxvii and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Programxxviii. According to the US EPA, the levels of dioxin-like compounds found in the general population may cause a lifetime cancer risk as high as one in 1,000xxix. This is 1,000 times higher than the generally “acceptable” risk level of one in a million. Dioxin also causes a wide range of non-cancer effects including reproductive, developmental, immunological, and endocrine effects in both animals and humansxxx.

Many Companies Going PVC-Free

Some of the biggest corporations in the world have recognized the dangers of PVC’s lifecycle and have adopted policies to reduce or phase out PVC. These include: Wal-Mart; Nike; Apple; Microsoft; Target; Sears and Kmart and many more!

Where is PVC Hiding in Your School?

PVC is found in many building materials and other products in schools including:

  • Flooring;
  • Roofing;
  • Carpeting;
  • School supplies such as 3-ring binders, backpacks, lunchboxes, and raincoats;
  • Office supplies such as binders, computers and paperclips;
  • Playground equipment; and more!

What Can I Do? Take Action for Healthy PVC-Free Schools

Safer and cost-effective alternatives are already available for virtually every PVC product in our nation’s schools. Here’s how you can help today:

  • Encourage your school to renovate or build their school with PVC-free building materials such as PVC-free linoleum flooring and TPO roofing.
  • Encourage your school district, county or state to adopt a healthy PVC-free policy to avoid the use of PVC building materials and office supplies in favor of safer cost-effective alternatives.
  • Educate parents, teachers and students! Organize a screening of Blue Vinyl and Sam Suds for your PTA, teacher’s union, or concerned students.
  • Encourage organizations, such as teacher’s unions and parenting groups, to endorse the campaign.
  • Back to school – go PVC-free! When buying your back-to-school supplies, shop for PVC-free products.
  • Get involved today! If you’re interested in getting involved, contact CHEJ at mike@chej.org or 212-964-3680.


i Thornton, J. 2002. Environmental impacts of polyvinyl chloride building materials – A Healthy Building Network report. Washington, DC: Healthy Building Network. Online: http://www.healthybuilding.net/pvc/Thornton_Enviro_Impacts_of_PVC.pdf (20 October 2009).

ii Landrigan, P. et al. Children’s health and the environment: a new agenda for preventive research. Environmental Health Perspectives June 1998.

iii Clausen, P. et al. 2004. Emission of Di-2-ethyhexyl phthalate from PVC flooring into air and uptake into dust: emission and sorption experiments in FLEC and CLIMPAQ. Environ. Sci. Technol 38: 2531-2537.

iv TNO Centre for technology and Policy Studies. 1996. A PVC substance flow analysis for Sweden: Report for Norsk-Hydro. Apeldoorn, Netherlands. As cited in Thornton, J. 2002. Environmental impacts of polyvinyl chloride building materials – A Healthy Building Network report. Washington, DC: Healthy Building Network. Online: http://www.healthybuilding.net/pvc/Thornton_Enviro_Impacts_of_PVC.pdf (20 October 2009).

v Latini, G. et al. 2003. In-Utero exposure to Di-(2-ethylhexyl)-phthalate and human pregnancy duration. Environmental Health Perspectives 111:1783-1785.

vi Colón, I. Et al. 2000. Identification of phthalate esters in the serum of young Puerto Rican girls with premature breast development. Environmental Health Perspectives 108: 895-900.

vii Duty, SM et al. 2003. The relationship between environmental exposures to phthalates and DNA damage in human sperm using the neutral comet assay. Environmental Health Perspectives 111:1164-1169.

viii Swan, S. et al. 2005. Decrease in anogenital distance among male infants with prenatal phthalate exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives 113: 1056-1061.

ix Lee, J. 2009. “Child obesity is linked to chemicals in plastics.” New York Times, April 17, City Room. Online: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/17/child-obesity-is-linked-to-chemicals-in-plastics/?pagemode=print (20 October 2009).

x Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Childhood overweight and obesity.” Online: http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/index.html (20 October 2009).

xi Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2005. Third national report on human exposure to environmental chemicals. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

xii Enoch, J. 2008. “Bush signs consumer safety bill.” Consumeraffairs.com August 14. Online: http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2008/08/cpsc_congress08.html (20 October 2009).

xiii Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2009. “FastStats – Asthma.” Online: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/asthma.htm (20 October 2009).

xiv U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2009. “Managing asthma in schools.” Online: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/schools/asthma.html (20 October 2009).

xv Larsson, M. et al. 2008. Associations between indoor environmental factors and parental- reported autistic spectrum disorders in children 6-8 years of age. Neurotoxicology doi:10.1016/j.neuro.2009.01.011.

xvi Kolarik, B. et al. 2008. The association between phthalates in dust and allergic diseases among Bulgarian children. Environmental Health Perspectives 116(1): 98-103.

xvii Bornehag et al. 2002. Dampness in buildings and health. Dampness at home as a risk factor for symptoms among 10,851 Swedish children. (DBH-STEP 1). SP Swedish National Testing and Research Institute and the International Centre for Indoor Environment and Energy, Technical University of Denmark Karlstad University, Sweden.

xviiiNorbäck D. et al. 2000. Asthma symptoms in relation to measured building dampness in upper concrete floor construction, and 2-ethyl-1-hexanol in indoor air. The International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease Volume 4, Number 11, pp. 1016-1025(10), International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.

xix Tuomainen, A., Seuri, M., and A. Sieppi. 2004. Indoor air quality and health problems associated with damp floor coverings in an office building. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health 77(3): 222-226.

xx Jaakkola, J.J.K., Ieromnimon, A. and M.S. Jaakkola. 2006. Interior surface materials and asthma in adults: A population-based incident case-control study. American Journal of Epidemiology 164(8): 742–749.

xxi U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2009. Indoor air quality Tools for Schools action kit. Online: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/schools/actionkit.html#Backgrounder (20 October 2009).

xxii California Air Resources Board (CARB). 1999. Common indoor sources of volatile organic compounds: Emission rates and techniques for reducing consumer exposures. Final Report. Contract No. 95-302, January.

xxiii Hodgson, A.T. et al. 2000. Volatile organic compound concentrations and emission rates in new manufactured and site-built houses. Indoor Air 10: 178-192.

xxiv Lester, S., Schade, M. and Weigand, C. 2008. Volatile vinyl – the new shower curtain’s chemical smell. Falls Church, VA: the Center for Health, Environment & Justice. Online: http://www.chej.org/showercurtainreport (20 October 2009).

xxv Lent, T., Silas, J. and Vallette, J. 2009. Resilient flooring & chemical hazards – a comparative analysis of vinyl and other alternatives to health care. Arlington, VA: Health Care Without Harm. Online: http://www.healthybuilding.net/docs/HBN-ResilientFlooring&ChemicalHazards-Report.pdf (20 October 2009).

xxvi Lester, S., and M. Belliveau. 2004. PVC: Bad news comes in threes. The poison plastic, health hazards and the looming waste crisis. Falls Church, VA: Center for Health, Environment and Justice, December. Online: http://besafenet.com/pvc/documents/bad_news_comes_in_threes.pdf (20 October 2009).

xxvii International Agency for Research on Cancer. 1997. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, Vol. 69, Polychlorinated Dibenzo-para-Dioxins and polychlorinated Dibenzofurans, Lyon, France.

xxviii National Toxicology Program. 2001 the January 2001 addendum to the Ninth Report on Carcinogens (originally published May 2000), US HHS, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program, Research Triangle Park, NC.

xxix USEPA. 2003. Exposure and human health assessment for 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin (TCDD) and related compounds, part III: integrated summary and risk characterization for 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin (TCDD) and Related Compounds. USEPA, Office of Research and Development, NAS Review Draft, December.

xxx USEPA. 2003. Exposure and human health assessment for 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin (TCDD) and related compounds, part III: integrated summary and risk characterization for 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin (TCDD) and Related Compounds. USEPA, Office of Research and Development, NAS Review Draft, December

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