Jorge Chapa

PVC = Guilty As Charged

by , 03/26/07

PVC in landfill

As mentioned on Inhabitat’s Green Building 101 design guide, PVC has been repeatedly linked to many health concerns. So, you may ask yourself, why isn’t it a subject of the supposedly comprehensive LEED certification criteria? That is the question that the LEED steering committee recently asked the US Green Building Council Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee (TSAC) to investigate further. And the results, while mixed, point to a definitive answer: PVC, when ranked throughout its life cycle, is consistently found as one of the worst materials for cancer related impacts.


The report investigated the following question: “For the applications studied, does the available evidence indicate that PVC-based materials are consistently among the worst of the alternative materials studied in terms of environmental and health impacts?” And without a doubt, PVC showed itself as the most harmful material to human health, specifically in regards to cancer-related impacts. It becomes even more harmful when considering its end-of-life disposal, which in most cases includes burning the material in landfills. The report also found that in at least three of the four products tested, PVC could be considered better than some of the alternatives, but it is by far not the best. The exception to this was the use of vinyl sheeting in resilient floors, where the environmental impact of PVC far outweighed any of its alternatives, and was shown to be the worst option of them all.

While the TSAC decided against providing a LEED credit for the reduction of PVC in buildings, this was not done due to the benign properties of the material, but rather, due to the fact that by reducing its use, a designer may be led into other more harmful products for the environment. The TSAC recommends further research in establishing credits for LCA and risk assessment to address both the environment and human health issues. Meanwhile, you may be interested to know, Australia’s Green Building Council does offer a credit for PVC minimization.

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16 Comments

  1. Jon Jungers January 7, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    We have had an alternative to PVC for underground air duct for almost six years. We need everyone that really wants an environmentally sound product and an energy efficient product to please take a look at our web site and give us your honest response. Thanks, Jon

  2. vip central June 30, 2007 at 2:18 pm

    We are looking for a “green” pvc glue. Does anyone know a product that can replace our current PVC Glue?

    thank you

  3. Gavin June 26, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    Firstly Barbara, that sounds truly sad I’m stuck for what to say. Words however could not be enough, and some action is necessary.

    I am at present looking for any sustainable building products relating to commercial or in particular hygienic interiors installation company. Unfortunately PVC is a very popular product to line walls, as with Glass Reinforced and Fibre Reinforced, along with vinyl floors and chemically sealed resin floors.

    I would be willing to use alternatives at the drop of a hat, and am keen to get an alternative product into production given the right hints, tips or scientific knowledge to progress. If anyone can help or even post a link to me I’d be grateful. Particularly PVC and Hygienic Solutions but any other ideas will be fully considered and gratefully recieved throughout the sustainable commercial interiors realm.

    gavin@hycom.co.uk

    Thanks for a lovely forum …

  4. Barbara Moles June 13, 2007 at 9:26 pm

    I juct want people to know that my husband worked at Action Technology for 15 years where PVC is manufactured and he contracted PVC poisoning. He blacks out and is numb when he awakens, his speech is slurred, and he has long and short term memory loss. It has also made him borderline bipolar. Now anyone who says that PVC is safe has holes in their heads. I have to watch him suffer with this everyday. We cannot prove the poisoning because he has not worked at that plant for 3 years, so the toxins are out of his body but the damage is definitely there. Someone has to stop this poisonous monster and find something safer.

  5. village idiot April 5, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    But it’s so convenient and useful! Damn.

    “Inert” is a relative term, and though a length of pipe used in plumbing might be inert while installed and carrying water, houses burn down, houses are remodeled, and someone had to get that skin-burning solvent glue spattered on their arms while installing it. Seems a bad idea to separate a product’s properties under ideal conditions from it’s properties under real-life conditions when deciding it’s merit or risk. The rationale for assessing somethings total impact throughout it’s entire life cycle is good, but doesn’t go far enough, IMO. How about assessing worst-case possibilities, and the probability of their occuring? In the case of PVC, worst-case scenarios happen more often than people think. It’s been standard practice (fought against for years, don’t know if still being done but was in 2004) on the island of Maui to burn the sugarcane fields with the PVC irrigation lines still laid out within them. Tthe lines are not buried, so they burn and are re-laid for the next crop. Not ideal at all.

    And let’s not forget the impact of the manufacturing of the materials to manufacture PVC.

    One material that bothers me as much or more than PVC is fiberglass. An expose’ unto itself…

  6. whit April 4, 2007 at 11:49 am

    The only reason PVC still exists is not because it is so perfect, and there are no alternatives, it’s becuase of the vinyl lobby. If half the money spent on fighting regulation and promoting this poison had been spent on finding an alternative we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We are free to protect and free to poison, whomever has the most money wins.

    To condemn PVC to the same fate as asbestos and move past it is a no-brainer. But the vinyl institute strikes fear ino the hearts of every ngo and industry related organization, including usgbc, out there. There’s no future in defending PVC, who does that benefit? The plumbing industry is adaptable and has historically done well with changovers ie Pex, Quest. If we get them a better product they’ll useit. The products, shavings and glues associated with PVC plumbing are also abusrdly over-toxic.

    As Matt referenced AlGore and the Kool-Aid he is selling, I can’t help wondering who exactly are we protecting by denying the realities of climate change and the dangers of PVC? The fact that PVC only harms those who manufacture it and those who work with it, is hardly comforting, justification for or even an ethically acceptable statement.

    But I will admit, I actually have no idea what I’m talking about chemically or scientifically speaking, as in I don’t know something about PVC beyond what is publically available and my conclusions are drawn anecdotally from experience and what limited study I have done on the issue. I’m comfortable with toxic=bad line of thinking becuase I also believe better design cna make the dabate go away, and it already has. Money is stopping up the hole in the PVC damn. Am I still typing? I am supposed to be working.

  7. Dan Wodarcyk March 29, 2007 at 1:08 am

    From a basic, and non building perspective (exhibits), pvc is one of the most common graphic substrates you will find in the museum and trade show industry. Museum exhibits can remain installed for many years and trade shows can often be a one time use. Your essay is a great reminder to us in the other design industries to think more about our materials choices.

  8. Jorge Chapa Jorge March 28, 2007 at 9:59 pm

    Matt:
    Actually the report does somewhat agree with your point, and hence the lack of a LEED credit for PVC minimization. As mentioned on the summary, PVC was not always the worst option compared to other alternatives, but it is hardly the best. And as you mentioned on your comment, PVC is a fairly inert material, so the actual pollution from the pipe itself is fairly low, unless the PVC pipe has been heavily induced with heavy metals such as lead, in which case, using it for your water supply is actually a very bad idea.
    One has to remember that the report actually speaks towards the life cycle of the product. And the main concern with PVC is what happens with it at the end of its life. And at the moment, most PVC is burnt at landfills, and that is really, really dangerous and bad.
    So, in my opinion, should we stop using PVC? The answer is yes, but is it feasible at the moment? Well, sadly, no, not yet. But, as proper designers and architects we should do our best to make sure that we use PVC properly and reduce its usage as much as possible.
    Here is the now famous report from Greenpeace, which was important in determining policy in numerous developments, such as the case of the Sydney Olympics regarding the ranking of plastics according to their toxicity.
    http://archive.greenpeace.org/toxics/html/content/pvc5.html

  9. Matt March 28, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    I’m sorry. That was a little immature. I’m absolutely for sustainable, green designs, and responsible use of our resources.

    One of the things I happen to be passionate about is our water supply. If you’re so inclined, do a little research on how much water is wasted, and how much money it costs tax payers, when iron pipes start breaking due to corrosion. It’s a real problem, and there isn’t nearly enough people doing anything about.

    At the end of the day, plastic pipe is our best option. It doesn’t corrode. It lasts longer. We pay less money and lose less water. It’s a good thing.

    There are other plastics besides PVC that can be used, but I get irritated when I read or hear comments from people who clearly are repeating something they’ve heard and actually don’t know the first thing about any plastics.

  10. Matt March 28, 2007 at 3:58 pm

    PVC has it relates to cancer, has everything to do with manufacturing polyvinyl chloride resin on a chemical level, and absolutely NOTHING to do with the inert plastic so many of us are familiar with.

    Unless you work in a chemical plant that makes PVC resin, you have little to fear from PVC.

    So, what? You’re going to stop using PVC to distribute water and turn to copper? Good job. Replace an inert material with one that corrodes. How much water loss in metal pipe infrastructure does it take for people to realize that running water through metal is an all-around bad idea.

    And finally, before you all go ridding your home of all things PVC, maybe you should keep in mind that virtually every medical product in the world is made from extruded or injection-molded PVC. That’s right. The world’s blood supply is STORED in PVC. So before you start drinking the anti-PVC-Al-Gore-said-so-it-must-be-true Kool-Aid, I’d like you to do some homework on how many cancer deaths have been linked to blood banks.

    People are silly.

  11. Phil March 27, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    have any of you looked at HDPE as an alternative to PVC Piping?

  12. Richie March 27, 2007 at 10:42 am

    I’m a homeowner in the tropics, where PVC is used Islandwide to distribute water and channel waste. So… if I changed out all the plumbing in my house to copper, I’d still be receiving PVC channeled water via the municipalities system. What’s the ‘solution’ to a scenario such as this one ? What to do if the supply side of the water you receive is carried through PVC pipelines ?

  13. Lisa March 27, 2007 at 9:46 am

    Fundamentally, sustainability is about sustaining life; If we make choices that foster the economic sustainability of the product or service above life (especially in the face of know carcinogens) we have achieved nothing. The well-being of the human occupant (mental, physical, social) must be paramount so that he/she can make good decisions for the planet.

  14. Jodi Smits Anderson March 27, 2007 at 9:07 am

    Everything is a choice in green building. You must weight the options for your locale, your design, clients needs, etc. There is no one shade “green or not green”.
    PVC is linked strongly to increases in asthma and in cancer. In a situation where you can choose to avoid risk – avoid PVC. Best case scenario – avoid potential risk. In a situation where costs or lack of knowledge or availabaility or a stuborn client (or architect) don’t allow you to choose alternatives, do what you can to reduce the use, to source locally and demand proper care and maintenance practices AND proper disposal approaches of old VCT and other PVC containing materials.

    Do what you can, when you can – always.

  15. Ben March 27, 2007 at 1:55 am

    Nice synopsis. The USGBC is kind of between a rock and a hard place here, as while PVC is terrible for everybody, there aren’t enough alternatives right now to support a general abatement program. I’m a little peeved, however, that they didn’t even consider any kind of application-specific credit. Vinyl siding, flooring, and roofing products can all be replaced at cost with friendlier alternatives. I guess that’s what Greenspec is for…

  16. Bob Ellenberg March 26, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    As a designer/builder this is a difficult one for me. Recently I have been focused on trying to make better “green” choices while developing a new line of cost effective moder designs. There are a few good alternatives to PVC for some building materials but most add considerably to the price. If you design and build a “green” house but only a few can afford it–how big is your overall contribution to the cause? I am reducing the amont of PVC in my designs and trying to offer alternatives in other areas as options for those who can afford the higher price tag.

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