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What is PVC plastic?

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is a widely-used plastic that is made from vinyl chloride—a known human carcinogen associated with liver cancer, brain and lung cancers, and cancers of the blood.

The largest uses of PVC include building materials like flooring, siding, drinking water and other piping, as well as carpeting. PVC is also used in other products such as single-use packaging, children’s toys, and apparel.

The Problem

From production and use to disposal, PVC poses serious threats to human health and the environment, exposing low-income communities and communities of color, workers, and consumers to dangerous chemicals.

Making PVC threatens our communities, health, and climate
PVC’s chemical building blocks cause cancer and other health problems, and production has devastating impacts on local communities.

Besides ethylene, it takes chlorine gas to make vinyl chloride, and the chemical industry makes chlorine using some of the worst of the worst chemicals—mercury, asbestos, or PFAS. Chlorine production is also hugely energy-intensive, contributing to climate change.

PVC production pollutes our air with cancer-causing chemicals.

Producers of vinyl chloride and PVC reported releasing more than 400,000 pounds of cancer-causing vinyl chloride into the air in 2021, threatening the health of people who live near these factories in Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, New Jersey, and Illinois. Vinyl chloride and PVC factories also release large quantities of another hazardous chemical, ethylene dichloride, which is an intermediate in vinyl chloride production and has been linked to cancer and harm to the immune system, liver, and kidneys.

Rail transport of vinyl chloride puts millions of U.S. residents at risk.

The disastrous train wreck in February 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio, involving five rail cars filled with vinyl chloride, made the dangers of transporting this hazardous chemical abundantly clear. Our own analysis found that at any one time, up to 36 million pounds of vinyl chloride are traveling on U.S. railways as companies ship vinyl chloride from Texas to PVC factories as far away as New Jersey and Ontario. More than three million people live within one mile of this train route, putting them at risk in the case of a train derailment.

PVC production relies on the fossil fuels and massive energy consumption that are driving climate change.

Making vinyl chloride starts with oil and natural gas, which as with other plastics, are used to make ethylene. This process requires an enormous amount of energy and results in pollution with cancer-causing chemicals including formaldehyde and benzene. With plastics production on track to expand by threefold over the next several decades, making PVC and other plastics could cancel out any other gains we make in solving the climate crisis.

PVC exposes children, pregnant women, and consumers to toxic additives
PVC is often filled with chemical additives to give the plastic certain properties, which can expose consumers to additional dangers including carcinogens and hormone-disrupting chemicals.

Additives commonly used in PVC include ortho-phthalates, chlorinated paraffins and other flame retardants, organotins, bisphenol A (BPA), and heavy metals like lead and cadmium may also be used. Because these additives are not chemically bound to the plastic, they can migrate or leach out, exposing consumers when they handle the products or when the additives leach into  indoor air, dust, or drinking water. As a result, these harmful chemicals can make their way into our bodies, posing health risks.

Approximately 90% of all phthalates are used to soften PVC plastic.

According to the CDC, close to 100% of U.S. residents have measurable levels of phthalates in their bodies. Harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can also off-gas from PVC products. One study found that more than 100 VOCs were released into indoor air from PVC shower curtains.

PVC production and disposal dispropportionately harm communities of color
PVC production poses serious health hazards to workers and frontline communities.

The production of plastics including PVC is concentrated in the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, including the part of Louisiana known as Cancer Alley. Vinyl chemical plants have fouled the air and water quality of nearby communities, and accidents and explosions at plants around the country have even injured and killed workers.

Many chemical and plastics plants involved in the production of PVC are located in low-income communities  and communities of color such as in Mossville, Louisiana and Houston, Texas.

Our own analysis found that communities near vinyl chloride or PVC production facilities or waste disposal sites have a particularly high percentage of people of color and low-income residents. Among the people living within a three-mile radius of these plants, 63% are people of color, compared to 41% nationwide. Residents of these areas earn an average of $23,747 per capita, which is 37% below the national average of $37,638.

And over the years, people in low-income communities of color have been forced to relocate due to vinyl chloride and contamination from vinyl/PVC plants in at least four different communities in Louisiana including Mossville, Reveilletown, Morrisonville, and Plaquemine.

PVC is harmful to the end
PVC is toxic to dispose of, whether it’s burned in incinerators or dumped in landfills.

The combustion of PVC in incinerators and accidental landfill fires can form toxic chlorinated byproducts, particularly dioxins and furans, considered to be among the most toxic chemicals on the planet. These chlorinated byproducts can travel hundreds of miles and build up in our bodies, fish, and wildlife.

In accidental building fires, the combustion of PVC can expose firefighters and other first responders to dangerous chemicals such as dioxins and hydrogen chloride.

And when PVC is landfilled, phthalates and other toxic additives can leach out and contaminate nearby groundwater.

Because PVC can contaminate and ruin other recyclable plastics, it is considered an unwanted contaminant to the recycling process for packaging.

As a result, many major brands and retailers have eliminated its use in packaging.

PVC is part of the microplastic problem.

As PVC plastic breaks down, PVC microplastics are contaminating oceans and water bodies around the world, and have even been found in human placenta. PVC microplastics can leach toxic additives such as phthalates, contributing to water pollution and body burden of these harmful chemicals.

The toxic vinyl chloride train route


At any given moment, up to 36 million pounds of toxic vinyl chloride are being shipped via rail by America’s largest producer, OxyVinyls, according to Toxic-Free Future’s 2024 report, Toxic Cargo.

This map reveals, for the first time, the most likely train route that vinyl chloride travels from OxyVinyls plants in Texas through hundreds of towns along 1,979 miles of tracks and through multiple major cities.


The Solution

Now is the time to advance meaningful common-sense government and corporate policies to ban PVC. To address environmental justice concerns, the climate crisis, and plastics pollution, governments and companies must adopt comprehensive safer chemicals policies to reduce and eliminate the production, use, and disposal of the toxic chemicals involved in PVC’s lifecycle and of PVC itself, while at the same time advancing the use of safer chemicals and materials.

The good news is that safer alternatives are readily available.

What are safer alternatives to PVC?
  • Linoleum, wood, and cork flooring
  • Fiber-cement siding
  • Recycled copper piping
  • Recycled paper/cardboard packaging

What's happening now?

Updated as of May 2024

Safer solutions are not only in reach, but governments and corporations around the world have enacted or are considering policies to phase out PVC and switch to safer products

Retailer commitments

  • Major businesses and retailers have adopted policies to phase out and ban PVC including Apple, HP, IKEA, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Nike, and Samsung.
  • Dozens of leading businesses have signed onto the U.S. Plastics Pact to eliminate PVC and other problematic packaging materials, such as Target and Walmart.

State policies

  • So far in 2024, seven states have introduced bills to restrict PVC in packaging including MA, MD, NH, NJ, NY,  RI, VT.
  • Washington state is considering regulating chlorinated chemicals, such as vinyl chloride, through its Safer Products for Washington law.

Federal policies

The EPA announced it is considering whether to regulate vinyl chloride under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in December 2023.

International policies

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) released an investigation recommending regulatory action on PVC additives (like orthophthalates, organotins, and flame retardants) and PVC microplastics across the European Union.


Our Key Projects & Priorities

Toxic-Free Future is working to advance common-sense corporate and governmental policies to ban this dangerous plastic and advance safer solutions for communities, workers, and consumers.

The Home Depot, ban PVC!

Our Mind the Store program showcases how major retailers can play a critical role in phasing out and banning this poison plastic, as many leading businesses have already done.

That’s why we are calling on major retailers like The Home Depot to join them and ban PVC. As the largest home improvement chain in the U.S. and the world, The Home Depot can play a critical role in advancing solutions and promoting healthier indoor environments and communities by reducing and eliminating the sale of this hazardous plastic in building materials and packaging.


EPA, ban vinyl chloride!

As part of our federal policy work, we are advocating for the EPA to follow the science and the law and ban vinyl chloride (PVC’s primary building block chemical) under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This would go a long way toward ending PVC use and production once and for all across the country.


Safer Products for Washington Act

In 2023, Washington state announced a proposal to identify chlorinated chemicals, such as vinyl chloride used to make PVC, as a priority chemical class as part of the next cycle of regulations in the Safer Products for Washington law, the nation’s strongest law regulating toxic chemicals in products and packaging. Washington state, along with other states, should ban PVC in favor of safer alternatives. Our partners in states across the country are advancing laws to restrict PVC in packaging. For more on what other states are doing, visit Safer States’ Bill Tracker.

Safer Products for Washington image of the Capitol of Olympia

Healthy Housing

Most PVC is used for building materials like flooring, windows, and doors. We are partnering with architects and housing advocates to steer affordable housing developments away from PVC and toward safer materials.

Healthy housing building materials