It's virtually impossible to go through a day without coming into contact with plastic. Take a second to think about everything plastic you touch each day. It could be your toothbrush, remote control, food containers, toys, pens, debit card, cell phone, and laptop.
While we all enjoy the benefits of plastic, some plastics are a whole lot safer than others. And there’s one type that actually releases harmful chemicals that accumulate in our bodies, homes, and the environment. It’s polyvinyl chloride – or PVC – and it’s in more things than you may realize.
Polyvinyl chloride is the third most widely used plastic in the world behind polyethylene (food containers and polyester fabrics) and polypropylene (nonfood containers and molded plastics). PVC is widely used in the building industry in place of metal pipes. You’ve probably seen the white plumbing pipes being used in new construction. PVC is also used to make vinyl shower curtains, children’s toys, and food containers.
By itself, PVC isn’t bad for you. It’s the manufacturing process, the disposal process and the plasticizers used to turn it into soft, flexible vinyl that are responsible for polluting.
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Manufacturing PVC releases a known human carcinogen, vinyl chloride (VC), into the atmosphere. Emissions from the PVC manufacturing industry are the leading source of VC in the air we breathe. In 2008, the EPA issued new guidelines to significantly reduce emissions from American PVC plants, but there are many more manufacturers in developing countries that don’t follow similar regulations. Once VC enters the atmosphere, it’s blown around the world.
Disposing of PVC is also a problem. Like all other plastics, PVC products will likely never decompose. Incinerating this type of plastic is even worse because it releases dangerous dioxins, which are another substance suspected of causing cancer. PVC is recyclable but it’s not easy or cheap because of its high chlorine content and the many plasticizers that are added to turn it into flexible, vinyl products.
These plasticizers help make products like vinyl shower curtains, waterproof fabrics, food containers and clear food packaging. One of the most commonly used plasticizers is a family of chemicals called phthalates. Because phthalates are not bound to the PVC, they are easily released from the plastic, especially when heated. Phthalates are believed to contribute to reproductive defects, especially in males, premature births and impaired neurological development.
So how can you avoid PVC? Start by avoiding plastics labeled with a No. 3 on the bottom. This identifies it as PVC. You also want to seek out vinyl products that are labeled PVC-free, which are now much easier to find. The United States now bans many dangerous phthalates in products for children younger than 12, but the ban took effect in 2009 and only for newly manufactured toys. This means there are still many children’s products that contain dangerous phthalates on store shelves. Look for newer items labeled PVC-free when shopping for younger children.
Plastics clearly have a benefit in our society, but there is more than one type to choose. Avoiding PVC products will help you protect your health and contribute fewer pollutants to the air around us.
Terri Bennett is a TV meteorologist, syndicated columnist, and host of DoYourPart.com where you can find everyday green living ideas. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.