What’s wrong with PVC/vinyl?

What products are made of PVC, and how do I find safer alternatives?

There are so many products made of PVC, I’m a little overwhelmed. Are there some that I should be more concerned about than others?

I heard about lead being found in children’s lunch boxes. What should I do?

Which plastic food containers are safest?

What’s the safest water bottle?

What’s wrong with PVC/vinyl?

Despite its many alternatives, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is one of the most
widely used plastics. Unfortunately, its production, use, and disposal create
persistent toxic pollution, including dioxin. Dioxins are produced at many points in the making of PVC, and additional dioxins are produced if PVC burns, either during garbage incineration or in structure or automobile fires.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified dioxin as a known human carcinogen in 1997. The September 2000 draft of the U.S. EPA’s Health Assessment document on dioxin also classifies dioxin as a known human carcinogen. In that same report, the U.S. EPA projected an excess cancer risk of one in 100 for the most sensitive people who consume a diet high in animal fats. For the average person, EPA estimates a risk level of one in 1,000. The U.S. National Toxicology Program classified dioxin as a known human carcinogen in January 2001.

Workers involved in making PVC or its basic ingredients are exposed to vinyl chloride, another known human carcinogen, and chemicals from PVC production have contaminated groundwater near several plants. Lead and other heavy metals are sometimes used as a stabilizer or to impart other properties to PVC plastic, and phthalates are used as plasticizers. Because of these additives, recycling is nearly impossible for most PVC products and interferes with the recycling of other plastics.

For more information on dioxin, see our FastFacts section on Persistent Toxic Chemicals. For information on phthalate plasticizers in PVC toys, see our report, Not So Squeaky Clean (PDF).

What products are made of PVC, and how do I find safer alternatives?

You can find a comprehensive list of products that can be made of PVC, along with safer alternatives, in our fact sheet, Vinyl Exam: Eliminating PVC in Your Home (PDF). Here are tips on some of the more common items:

  • children’s products:
    see our Safe Start for Kids website section for tips on choosing toys, clothing, furniture, and other items free of PVC.

  • flooring:
    linoleum, cork, bamboo, and wood are preferable alternatives.
  • wall coverings:
    various alternatives are available, such as paint, paper-based wallpaper, and wood paneling.
  • windows and doors:
    the preferred choice is wood, especially from certified sustainable
    sources.
  • shower curtains:
    choose cotton shower curtains with polyester or nylon liners (or you can just use a liner).
  • plastic wrap and food containers: plastic bags, plastic food storage containers, and cling wrap (for residential use) are made of PVC-free alternatives. Commercial-grade cling wrap is usually made of vinyl (PVC). If you buy deli items such as cheese that are packaged in cling wrap, cut off a thin layer where the food contacted the wrap and store in a safer container. Product packages marked with the #3 recycling symbol are made of PVC.

    See our quick guide to plastics, Plastics 101, to learn more about safer plastics for storing food and beverages.

  • other products that can be made of PVC include : siding, electrical wire coatings, piping, garden hoses, fencing and decking, apparel, inflatable furniture, shutters and blinds, mattress covers, and notebook covers.

There are so many products made of PVC, I’m a little overwhelmed. Are there some that I should be more concerned about than others?

If you have children, start by replacing PVC products that they mouth, chew,
or play with regularly. Soft plastic toys such as bath toys, squeeze toys, and
dolls are commonly made of PVC. If you’re not sure if a toy contains vinyl/PVC, try looking it up on HealthyToys.org. Choose plastic-free toys when possible, such as unpainted wooden toys, cloth and plush toys, and games and puzzles made of paper.

Avoid vinyl lunch boxes (see our next FastFacts below), and don’t allow children to drink from garden hoses of any type.

If you buy deli items such as cheese that are packaged in cling wrap, cut
off a thin layer where the food contacted the wrap and store in a safer container.

Replacing materials used in large quantities in and around the home, such as flooring, piping, wall coverings, and siding is probably impractical in most cases, but always look for PVC-free materials when doing any remodeling. Items like shower curtains and apparel are easy to replace.

I heard about lead being found in children’s lunch boxes. What should I do?

If you have a lunch box made of vinyl/PVC, throw it away and choose cloth lunch bags or metal lunch boxes instead. See our Safe Start for Kids website section for quick tips and resources on choosing lunch boxes and food storage.

Which plastic food containers are safest?

Food storage bags and plastic containers for leftovers are made of safer plastics. However, check labels on the bottoms of containers and avoid containers made of PVC/vinyl (3), polycarbonate (7), or polystyrene (6). (If you have plastic containers that aren’t marked with recycling symbols, check with the manufacturer.) Glass leftover containers with removable plastic tops are available in various sizes and are convenient for microwaving leftovers. See our quick guide to plastics, Plastics 101, to learn more about safer plastics for storing food and beverages.

What’s the safest water bottle?

Stainless steel is probably the best choice, though you may want to avoid storing strongly acidic liquids such as soda as small amounts of nickel and chromium can leach from stainless steel. Bottles made of coated aluminum are also available. While manufacturers claim that the coatings are non-toxic, this can’t be confirmed without full disclosure of the ingredients.

Avoid plastic water bottles made of polycarbonate (7) – these are usually translucent (not opaque) and hard, and available in various bright colors. Water bottles made of PVC (3) and polystyrene (6) are less common, but should also be avoided. Choose plastic bottles made of polypropylene (5) or polyethylene (1, 2, 4) instead. Some people reuse beverage bottles; if you try this, replace the bottles regularly, as they are hard to clean and bacteria can accumulate inside them. See our quick guide to plastics, Plastics 101, to learn more about safer plastics for storing food and beverages.

If you don’t mind the extra weight, glass-lined thermoses are a non-toxic option. Some people have success reusing glass bottles – be sure to transport them carefully, and replace them regularly too.