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February 21, 2000


Something to die for

By Betsey Culp (bculp@sfcall.com)

For a technological society, we’re pretty gullible. There was a time when cigarettes were touted as good for the throat, and uranium was hailed as a new cure for ailing respiratory systems. Today a substance known as PVC has arrived with the promise to transform our lives.

PVC. Polyvinyl chloride, according to the chemistry textbooks. A pretty vile concoction, according to Dr. Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network (www.sehn.org) and co-author of “Generations at Risk: Reproductive Health and the Environment.”  Schettler joined about a dozen scientists, environmentalists, and builders to address a conference on “healthy buildings” conducted recently in San Francisco. If you think global warming is scary, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

What is PVC? In a word, it’s vinyl.

The Vinyl Institute (www.vinylinfo.org), a U.S. trade association, considers it a modern scientific miracle. Developed in the 1920s, today the substance ranks second among all plastics in worldwide production: in North America in 1998, processors turned out 14.7 million pounds of vinyl resin and incorporated it into “products that are safer, easier to use, clearer, cleaner, more durable, more economical and simply better.”

The British PVC Centre (www.ramsay.co.uk) echoes these encomia: “PVC takes pride of place among the plastics we encounter every day. It was one of the earliest and is still the most widely used. PVC is light, non-flammable, robust and durable; it is impermeable and does not deteriorate, is easy to maintain and gives excellent value for money; and its physical and mechanical characteristics make it ideal for many different uses.”

Ask any contractor. Vinyl — from pipes to flooring to doors and windows to nail coatings —has changed the construction industry.

The problem is, the price may be too high.

There’s no easy way to make PCV sexy. I could show you pictures of vinyl-coated windows and pretty “rubber” duckies. They’re too familiar to be frightening. I could show you photographs of malignant tumors and deformed frogs. They’d just drive you away in horror. What I can’t show you is what really matters — the invisible chemical processes that accompany the production, use, and disposal of PVC.

Whenever chlorine-based chemicals such as PVC are produced, they give off a variety of contaminants, including “the most toxic chemical on earth” — dioxin. In a cartoon, dioxin would appear as the life of the party, latching happily onto everyone it meets.

Dioxin first came to the public’s attention during the Vietnam War because of its affinity for the ingredients in the herbicide Agent Orange and later because of a suspicion that it was causing a number of veterans’ medical problems. But it also insinuates itself into fat cells. Imagine that wastewater from a PVC processor makes its way into a nearby stream, where a fat little water flea absorbs some of the dioxin it carries. A passing shrimp gobbles up the flea, along with its deadly cargo. And so on, up the food chain. Because dioxin, like the vinyl it creates, lasts a long time, its pernicious influence can journey far afield before it finally dissipates. And even more worrisome than its well-known carcinogenic effects, dioxin somehow disrupts normal hormonal activity, spawning grotesque offspring and threatening future generations.

Gregarious PVC isn’t much good on its own. It needs additives to make it flexible and tough, but these additives often jump ship and do major damage to anyone who comes within range. Vinyl mini blinds release lead dust as they are exposed to sunlight. Organo-tins leach out of vinyl pipes and interfere with immune systems. Vinyl flooring releases phthalates, fostering asthma.

Had enough? If you’re thinking about ripping out all the vinyl in your house and consigning it to the dump, you might reconsider. Turned into landfill, its noxious substances easily ooze into the groundwater. Incinerated, it releases a variety of lethal fumes into the air.

In fact, one of the gravest dangers of PVC is the way it burns. Imagine a house composed of the usual run of vinyl products. For some reason — faulty wiring? a pan left on the stove? — something begins to smolder. Because PVC is flame-resistant, it can release hydrochloric acid and dioxin long before anyone inside realizes there is a fire. Death occurs quickly, caused by invisible toxic gases.

In the past few years, a number of major American corporations — Nike, Mattel, General Motors —  have vowed to phase out their use of PVC’s. In Europe, construction projects such as the Chunnel between England and France have been built virtually PVC-free. Olympics 2000 Village is rising in Sydney with a minimal use of PVC. Fire fighters hate it. San Francisco’s Commission on the Environment has urged against its use. But we still keep buying those pipes and never-need-painting doors.