stacked PVC pipe

Poison Plastic: The Toxic Life Cycle of PVC  

The tanker cars in the East Palestine train derailment contained vinyl chloride, a primary building block of PVC. PVC is the third most common plastic manufactured globally. PVC is toxic at every stage of production and disposal. The Ecology Center has been campaigning against PVC for 35 years since we first connected the life cycle of this plastic and health and environmental harm. 

You can find PVC everywhere in your home and office, from flooring to siding, shower curtains to placemats, tablecloths to children’s toys, IV bags to water pipes. There are safer alternatives for nearly all of these uses, yet the powerful vinyl lobby and the economics of oil and gas production have meant we still use it.  

Toxic at the Start 

PVC starts its life in a highly energy-intensive process used to make chlorine gas – a toxic and volatile chemical. The process requires highly hazardous PFAS, asbestos, or mercury to work. In China, where an estimated 34% of all PVC is made today, the industry uses massive amounts of mercury while contributing to carbon dioxide pollution and global warming. Some of that production has been traced to the forced labor of Uyghurs in China. The Uyghur Region has become a global leader in the production of PVC plastics in recent years, accounting for 10% of the world’s PVC.  According to researcher Jim Vallette of Material Research, “There’s nothing like it on Earth in the combination of climate and toxic pollution. And workers are living there 24/7.”  

PVC's Toxic Building Blocks

One of PVC’s building blocks, vinyl chloride, is a potent carcinogen and one of the most commonly released industrial chemicals. Five major emitters account for half of the releases of vinyl chloride yearly in the United States, most located in the Eastern U.S. or the Gulf of Mexico, like the top emitter, Formosa Plastics in Texas. in 2021, the plant was in violation of the Clean Air Act throughout the entire most recent reporting year. Among industrial facilities generally, Formosa is not the exception. A new Guardian report estimates the U.S. is averaging one chemical accident every two days, highlighting how industrial plant leaks and spills are also plaguing host communities.

Early this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a draft toxicological profile for vinyl chloride that found the volatile chemical was used almost exclusively by the plastics industry, and has "leached into groundwater from spills, landfills, and industrial sources."  It noted that people who live around plastic manufacturing sites "may be exposed to vinyl chloride by inhalation of contaminated air." Residents with existing conditions may be much more vulnerable to the effects of vinyl chloride.

PVC-Poisoned Towns

PVC production is known to have contributed to abandoned towns and health risks in nearby communities. Morrisonville, Reveilletown, and Mossville, Louisiana – three communities founded by formerly enslaved people – have been poisoned and abandoned as a result of vinyl chloride and plastic production. These communities are part of an 85-mile-long ribbon of land called "Cancer Alley," which accounts for 25% of the petrochemical production in the United States. A predominantly Black area, it is surrounded by chemical plants making the plastics we use every day, and poisoning the residents while doing it. The highest cancer risks from air toxics in the country are in this area. For example, residents of one town are 50 times more likely than the average American to develop cancer from air pollution.

PVC's Toxic Additives 

PVC plastic is a nightmare in other ways. It is naturally rigid, and doesn’t perform well if it is exposed to heat or light. To address these issues, PVC is often filled with a host of toxic additives, like plasticizers to make it flexible. Plasticizers can disrupt the messaging system of the body, harm reproductive health, and contribute to asthma and developmental problems. Toxic metals such as lead, cadmium, and organotins are used as stabilizers. Toxic flame retardants are added to suppress fires.

All of these additives can leach from plastic during use, exposing all of us, and contaminating the indoor and outdoor environment. That’s why your vinyl car seats crack over time as the plasticizer leaches out and into the air and dust around you, why indoor dust contains toxic chemicals, and why IV bags can leach plasticizers from the bag into the patient as they receive life-giving fluids.  

PVC's Toxic Disposal

All of these additives make PVC hard to recycle, and very little of it is. Most ends up in landfills and incinerators. Not only is it hard to recycle, it interferes badly with the sorting process at recycling facilities, so much so that recyclers, packagers, and major consumer brands have called for it to be entirely phased out of use. Small fragments of PVC called microplastics can end up in lakes and the ocean where they can release phthalates and other toxic additives, posing risks to fish and wildlife.

When you burn PVC and vinyl chloride, the process can release phosgene, a lethal gas used as a chemical weapon in WWI, and hydrochloric acid, which is highly corrosive to the lungs. You also get dioxins, long-lived chemicals that are toxic in the tiniest amounts, cause cancer in every species tested, and are linked to diabetes, heart disease, nervous system disorders, and other serious health problems. Dioxins can contaminate soil, surfaces, and dust, and the plants and animals raised on the land. 

PVC's Toxic Transport

A history of accidents during the transport and manufacture of PVC have also terrorized communities and left a legacy of poison. Since 2010, there have been at least 40 chemical incidents worldwide involving the production of vinyl chloride monomer and PVC plastic. These incidents, including chemical fires and explosions, killed at least 71 people and injured 637 people. 

PVC, Plastic, and Climate Change

Not only is plastic production, use, and disposal a global health crisis, plastic is also part of the oil industry’s strategy to continue to reap huge profits while finding another market for their product. Most plastics come from oil and gas, and their production is increasing dramatically. The U.S. produces 10 million metric tons of PVC annually, for example, with projected growth to 16 million metric tons by 2050. As the U.S. shifts to clean energy, fossil fuel companies are turning to petrochemicals like plastics to maintain production and profit levels. According to EarthJustice, the industry is planning a massive build-out of petrochemical plants, many in already-burdened low-income communities and communities of color. The expansion will reinforce a pattern of toxic plastic production and waste that poisons our communities.

There is another link to the climate crisis too: The world’s plastic carbon footprint accounts for 4.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (2015), and it’s expected to grow dramatically. Six percent of global coal electricity is already used for plastics production. At present rates, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to meet carbon emissions targets. American PVC production alone emitted roughly 18 million metric tons of CO2 in 2020. PVC requires ethane – often obtained through fracking natural gas that emits the greenhouse gas methane, a major driver of climate change. PVC, according to a 2020 study, has a "higher potential in global warming than other plastics" due to its high energy consumption and CO2 emissions. Ethane production hit record levels last year, as the global PVC market is expected to become a $56.1 billion industry within the next three years.

Americans Want Alternatives 

A whopping 73% of voters support a stop in building new plastic production facilities, in addition to widespread support for policies that limit the use of single-use plastic.” And“82% of voters support the protection of people in neighborhoods affected by pollution from nearby plastic production facilities.” Eight in 10 voters are concerned about single-use plastic products and are in favor of requiring companies to reduce plastic packaging and food ware, increase the use of reusable packaging and food ware, and hold companies accountable for plastic waste. While we drown in a sea of plastic that reduces our quality of life and makes us sicker, policymakers have an opportunity to make sweeping changes to protect us.