Whether or not you are into the green movement, selling products associated with words like "toxic" and "health risk" doesn't sound like a good idea. But what if those products are found all around the home, both inside and out, and almost everywhere else? And what if even experts still aren't sure of what to make of it? A debate taking place over PVC has lawmakers pushing for research, environmentalists pressuring companies, and green builders disagreeing about what direction to take. In the meantime, everyone else is trying to decide what to do.
Builders see PVC (polyvinyl chloride) in window frames, decking, flooring, siding, pipes, wiring, and more. The material wins praise for its low cost, low maintenance, and durability, and it is found many other places, such as soft toys and medical supplies.
But lately, PVC has come under attack. Its manufacture involves a chemical called vinyl chloride, which causes cancer. When PVC burns, such as in landfills or house fires, it emits a highly toxic and cancer-causing chemical called dioxin. And though there are ways to recycle PVC, it is not as readily recyclable as other plastics.
Concerns also exist regarding softer products in use, such as vinyl floors. Vinyl can contain lead, and studies have linked chemicals in vinyl called phthalates (pronounced THAL-eights) with asthma and reproductive disorders in infants and young children, such as early puberty and infertility.
However, for each element criticizing vinyl, there is a counterpoint.
More information is needed about everyday human exposure to phthalates. The Environmental Protection Agency just told the National Academies to put together information on phthalates. Some criticize the EPA, which makes environmental laws, for not having the information already.
Also, the Vinyl Institute says today's manufacturing contains less lead and less risk for vinyl chloride exposure, and that dioxin levels in the environment have decreased even as vinyl production has increased.
Still, because of PVC's life cycle and health concerns, environmentalists dub it the "poison plastic" and pressure companies to stop using it.
So far, Target, Wal-Mart, Johnson & Johnson, Apple, and Microsoft have reduced or eliminated PVC in packaging and products. Firestone Building Products replaced PVC roof membrane products with TPO, and carpet manufacturers Shaw and Milliken have phased out PVC backings. Hospitals are reducing PVC in medical equipment, and some governments–including California, a leader in environmental legislation–have banned PVC in soft toys.
Some green builders agree that eliminating PVC is necessary, but others don't. Alternatives to PVC can boost project costs and sometimes don't work as well.
So, what should dealers do? As with many environmental issues, it depends on how active the business wants to be. The most drastic measure is completely eliminating PVC. Some green products already promote the fact they are free of the material. Another route means thinking more about what applications benefit from PVC, and when good alternatives exist. A PVC Task Group for LEED recommends this action, saying completely eliminating PVC could steer builders to worse choices.
The last option would be to wait until lawmakers hash it out–and there is no question this debate will continue.