Something to die for
By Betsey Culp (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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
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
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.
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.