April 23, 2005

On vinyl

I knew going into tonight's talk by Dr Sandra Steingraber that vinyl was bad. I've been working on decreasing its presence in my life---the last time I needed to replace a shower curtain, for instance, I made one from broadcloth rather than buy a vinyl one. But, as with so many environmental issues, the reality is so much worse than I realised. "Vinyl", see, is short for "polyvinyl chloride", aka PVC. It's that "chloride" part that causes most of the problems.

Vinyl starts its life as salt. When the salt is treated to extract the sodium, it releases chlorine gas as a byproduct. Chlorine gas, you may recall, is the chemical weapon banned after WWI by universal accord as people realised how horrifying it was: it essentially liquefies your respiratory system and drowns you in your own blood plasma. So we're not exactly off to a good start here.

The chlorine is captured and processed, and the next stage in its life is as vinyl chloride (monomer), which doesn't kill rapidly like chlorine gas but is well-known as one of the most powerful carcinogens in existence. Charming! As if that weren't enough, it is also highly explosive. Let's hope no tanker trucks carrying vinyl chloride ever get in an accident or get attacked, because they'd take out everything with a huge blast radius on the order of several square miles.

Further treatment converts the monomer into its polymer cousin polyvinyl chloride: vinyl. The process unavoidably exposes the factory workers, and usually the nearest town, to considerable doses of carcinogenic vinyl chloride, but the fun doesn't stop there. If it is to be turned into something flexible, like a shower curtain or a rubber ducky, it has to be further treated. PVC is actually fairly brittle, so plasticisers are added at this stage. These chemicals "offgas" in measurable quantities for several months---this is the source of "new car smell" among other things---and current research is ongoing to determine for certain whether they are carcinogenic or otherwise dangerous, but signs are not good.

And even if the vinyl is going into something that doesn't need to be flexible---like vinyl flooring, which is what all "linoleum" currently sold in the US actually is---there is the problem that it breaks down over time, and eventually releases carcinogenic vinyl chloride. Many vinyl products have still other nasty things in them, as with miniblinds, which usually have significant heavy metal content in order to delay the PVC breaking down in sunlight.

But wait! There's more! What do you do with something that breaks or is no longer useful? You throw it out or recycle it. Recycling doesn't work with PVC, because all the toxic chemicals used to make it can't get into the regular plastics recycling stream. So you throw it out... in a landfill? That's the usual choice, at which point the plasticisers, the heavy metals, and the vinyl chloride itself leach out into the ground, and thence to the groundwater, and on into our drinking water. Or you could incinerate it... and release all that chemical goodness into the atmosphere, where it gets deposited a dozen, a hundred, or a thousand miles away, messing with the global food and water supplies.

Dr Steingraber's talk was really interesting and helped to give a human face to the problem of vinyl, as well as some other environmental issues she's investigated in the past. I'm looking forward to reading her book Living Downstream. In the meantime, I'll settle for exhorting all y'all to try to reduce your dependence on vinyl---especially, for God's sake don't use it in anything big like flooring or siding.

"Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war." --Donald Rumsfeld

Posted by blahedo at 11:52pm on 23 Apr 2005
According to quite a few sources out on the web (google "recycling vinyl"), vinyl is, in fact, recycled quite heavily and there is a $20 million a year market in recycled vinyl. I would question whether the presentation you were given was balanced. Posted by kelly at 10:51am on 24 Apr 2005
But music sounds so much better when it's on vinyl! Posted by Chris at 3:40pm on 24 Apr 2005
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