Understanding PVC Dangers

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Yesterday, we told you about a new study that shows shower curtains made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic pose a variety of health hazards. Here’s a look at the state of PVC production today, courtesy of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.


PVC is the second-largest commodity plastic in global production, with nearly 15 billion pounds produced annually in the United States. Workers, consumers and those living in communities near where PVC is made, or ultimately discarded, are at risk of harm from the toxic chemicals it contains.

Three chemicals are at the core of manufacturing: First, chlorine gas is used to produce ethylene dichloride (EDC). Second, the EDC is converted into vinyl chloride monomer (VCM). Finally, the VCM is converted into the PVC. VCM and EDC are extremely hazardous, with vinyl chloride causing a rare form of liver cancer that damages the liver and central nervous system.

The EPA classifies vinyl chloride as a known human carcinogen. When PVC is manufactured by workers or burned when discarded, numerous dioxins are formed and released into the air and water. Dioxins are a highly toxic group of chemicals that build up in the food chain and can cause cancer, as well as harm the immune and reproductive systems.

The volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that PVC releases can also cause eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; loss of coordination; and nausea. Key symptoms associated with exposure include eye irritation, nose and throat discomfort, difficulty breathing, allergic skin reaction, headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness and nosebleeds. Phthalates have been linked to reproductive problems, including shorter pregnancy duration and sperm damage in males.

“The brain is a major target for VOCs, causing everything from headache and loss of concentration to learning disabilities in children whose mothers were exposed before their birth, as shown in a recent Canadian study,” says David O. Carpenter, MD, director of the Institute for Health and Environment at the University at Albany, SUNY. “Since there are safe alternatives to vinyl shower curtains, such exposures should always be avoided.”

“The chemical companies continue to pollute without regard to the communities around them or the people who work there,” adds shrimper Diane Wilson, founder of Calhoun County Resource Watch. She’s also the author of An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas.

“Here in Calhoun County, Texas,” Wilson says, “the alarms alerting workers to the toxic fumes in the polyvinyl chloride plant went off so much they turned off the alarms! This chemical makes the communities sick where it is made, it makes the workers sick and will do the same thing to the consumers who buy the stuff.”

Tune in tomorrow for Part 3 of this story, “PVC Shower Curtains: What’s Next?”

Photo by Stacey Vaeth

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