PVC gloves on a production line in Rugao, China.

PVC gloves on a production line in Rugao, China. Wu Shujian / VCG via Getty Images

Plastics Reckoning: PVC Is Ubiquitous, But Maybe Not for Long

Used in everything from water pipes to vinyl records, PVC has long attracted criticism: a key ingredient is carcinogenic, and its additives include known endocrine disruptors. Now, the EPA is evaluating PVC’s safety, and an emerging global plastics treaty may limit its use.

The word “vinyl” might sound innocuous, bringing to mind everyday items like LP records, flooring, pipes, or shiny plastic pants. The plastic this name refers to — polyvinyl chloride (PVC) — is the world’s third-most widely produced synthetic polymer, with more than 50 million tons cranked out each year for everything from window frames to food wrap, fake leather car seats to medical products. It’s everywhere.

But environmentalists and NGOs have been raising alarms about PVC for decades. Scientists have established that its precursor chemical is carcinogenic; that some of the additives used to make it flexible can muck with hormones; and that it can spew noxious compounds, especially when burned. It’s “the worst of the worst” when it comes to plastics, says Judith Enck, a policy expert with Beyond Plastics, a nonprofit based at Bennington College in Vermont. Now, vinyl’s heyday may finally be drawing to an end.

This year, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution will be attempting to finalize the world’s first plastics treaty, with the ambitious mandate to end — not just limit — plastics pollution. Treaty discussions so far have ranged over how best to stem plastic production, phase out single-use plastics, boost recycling, mandate the incorporation of those recycled materials into new products, and establish a list of particularly problematic substances. That list, which many experts say should include PVC, would be akin to the list of ozone-depleting substances in the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which successfully phased out harmful compounds including chlorofluorocarbons, known as CFCs.

So, will 2024 spell the beginning of the end for PVC? And how might the world adjust to its absence?

By one estimate, lifetime exposures to plastic chemicals cost the U.S. $249 billion in health care in 2018.

PVC was first synthesized in the mid-1800s and started to become popular in the early 1900s as an alternative for natural rubber. The addition of other chemicals made PVC more flexible (useful for, say, waterproof coatings on clothing), more durable (when exposed to UV rays, for example), and fire resistant. The construction industry’s use of PVC for flooring, siding, pipes, and more doubled between 1980 and 1995.

In the 1970s, though, researchers began to document liver cancers in PVC plant workers and traced their exposure to vinyl chloride monomer (the starting ingredient of PVC), now classified as a carcinogen. In the 1990s, people began campaigning against the use of PVC in children’s toys, concerned particularly about exposure to certain PVC additives called phthalates, some of which are known endocrine disruptors, capable of affecting development and reproduction. Calls for bans began to ramp up.

Regulations that limit the use of PVC or some of its additives have mounted, as companies, cities, and nations have enacted dozens of restrictions over the past decades. In 1999, Austria became one of the first countries to ban certain phthalate plasticizers from children’s toys; other nations followed suit, including the United States, in 2008. The U.S. Plastics Pact — a group that works to eliminate single-use and non-recyclable plastics and counts among its members companies that produce 33 percent of U.S. plastic packaging — has identified PVC as one of a handful of problematic and unnecessary materials and has committed to take measures to eliminate it from packaging by 2025.

PVC pellets used to make vinyl records at a factory in Hayes, England.

PVC pellets used to make vinyl records at a factory in Hayes, England. Chris J. Ratcliffe / Getty Images

Last November, a coalition of non-governmental organizations called on the European Commission to phase out PVC by 2030. And in December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency kickstarted a chemical safety evaluation process for five toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride, which could be a first step toward a national ban. “We are working to ban vinyl chloride full stop,” says Enck. “It’s going to take the EPA at least eight years to get through the process. But we’re in it for the long haul.”

The Vinyl Institute, a U.S. industry trade group, says it is providing data to the EPA. “Our members continue to tout the many benefits of PVC and defend the vital material against calls for bans,” the institute said in a statement. “We believe this risk evaluation will further assure that the production and uses of vinyl chloride are safe.”

It can be notoriously difficult to tally up the medical and environmental effects of any given chemical. People are likely exposed to 30,000 chemicals a day, often at low concentrations, so linking cause and effect is difficult, says Bethanie Carney Almroth, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Gothenburg who studies plastic toxicity in the marine environment and is a steering member of the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, an independent group aiming to advise treaty-makers.

A study of toys made before 2009 found some were up to 40 percent phthalates by weight.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” she says. The net impact, though, is thought to be huge. A February 2024 study by Leonardo Trasande, an environmental health researcher at New York University, found that lifetime exposures to plastic chemicals cost the U.S. $249 billion in health care in 2018, thanks to everything from pre-term births to obesity, heart disease, and cancer.

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) published a report last November on PVC, along with 63 key chemicals commonly used to make it heat stable, flexible, and flame retardant. Its conclusions salve some concerns but amplify others. Regarding liver cancer from worker exposure to vinyl chloride — the original and highest-profile concern about PVC — the ECHA report noted that strict exposure limits for workers in Europe have stamped out reports of this kind of cancer.

Of course, says ECHA chemist Jesus Vazquez-Rodriguez, “accidents can happen.” In 2023, a train carrying 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride in addition to other chemicals derailed and caught fire in Ohio; responders released and burned the remaining vinyl chloride to keep it from exploding. The dramatic incident and its black plume of smoke attracted widespread attention and concern about possible chemical exposures. The non-profit Toxic-Free Future estimated in a report last month that at any given time there are 36 million pounds of vinyl chloride on the move over 2,000 miles of U.S. railways, raising the specter of future disasters.

Smoke rises from a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that spilled 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride last February.

Smoke rises from a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that spilled 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride last February. AP Photo / Gene J. Puskar

In terms of PVC additives, the ECHA report highlights phthalates — specifically, short-chain orthophthalates — as a primary concern. While a few specific phthalates have been weeded out in Europe and in the U.S., they are still widely used, ECHA notes, in parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

Even in places where phthalates are regulated, says Carney Almroth, the rules can have holes and limitations. A 2021 study in her home country of Sweden, for example, found that certain phthalates and other chemicals that had been banned from children’s toys still showed up in eight out of 10 tested food containers (including cereal boxes and kids’ cups), where they were allowed. Carney Almroth herself looked at children’s toys made before 2009, purchased at second-hand stores, and found some were up to 40 percent phthalates by weight. “They’re endocrine disruptors. And your kids suck on them,” she sighs. These compounds aren’t chemically bound within the plastic, she notes, so they easily leak out.

A second class of concern in ECHA’s PVC report is organotin: carbon- and tin-based compounds widely added to PVC in North America to help prevent it from decomposing, and more narrowly added to products in Europe when, for example, plastic needs to be transparent or stable at high temperatures. Those uses include blister packages for pills. Some organotin substances are neurotoxic, or they can interfere with the reproductive or immune system; they are regulated in European toys and were banned from use as anti-fouling paint on ships because of their impacts on marine life, including causing sex changes in whelks. The ECHA report finds there are risks to recycling facility workers from exposure to organotins.

Some PVC additives have alternatives, but those replacements might turn out to be worse for health.

Scientists continue studying PVC. One recent analysis concluded we should be paying more attention to volatile organic compounds degassing from vinyl home décor, like wallpaper and flooring (such compounds are responsible for “new car smell”). Others are trying to document what might be released from PVC pipes into water, or from PVC medical supplies burned in hospital incinerators.

Recycling is also a challenge. Special systems are needed to recover PVC; if it’s included with other types of plastics, “it ruins the batch,” says Carney Almroth. In Europe, where the rate of PVC recycling is relatively high, just 27 percent is recycled. Even if properly recycled, the mechanical grinding of PVC can release microplastics into the air. The impacts of that are largely unknown, but microplastics (of any polymer) appear to be increasingly problematic for human health and ecosystems. Plastic microbeads have already been banned from products like facial scrubs for these same reasons; the ECHA report notes there’s no reason to think that PVC microplastics generated by recycling would be any less problematic.

Fortunately, there are alternatives for PVC for most uses — including for vinyl records, medical devices, and construction material — though some of them cost more. ECHA estimates that polyethylene pipes, for example, are at least 20 percent more expensive than PVC, and ductile iron pipes 90 percent more expensive. But there are other considerations. “It’s not just the cost of the material itself. There’s the cost to society,” says Vazquez-Rodriguez.

Toxicologist Yvonne Chovolou has found a regulated plasticizer in numerous urine samples from small children in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.

Toxicologist Yvonne Chovolou has found a regulated plasticizer in numerous urine samples from small children in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Bernd Thissen / picture-alliance / dpa / AP Images

Some of PVC’s more problematic additives also have alternatives. But some of those chemical replacements might turn out to be worse for the environment or health. Of the 16,000 chemicals known to be used in plastics, says Carney Almroth, 4,200 are known to be hazardous and 10,000 have insufficient data. That leaves plenty of scope for unknown harms. And these chemicals are everywhere. One 2021 study in the U.S. found “abundant” plasticizers in fast foods like hamburgers, having presumably leached in from packaging or food service gloves. “The human health implications of chronic exposures to replacement plasticizers are poorly understood,” wrote the authors, led by environmental health scientist Ami Zota of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, noting that only a few animal studies have been done on replacement chemicals.

Limitations in both information and policies can make it easy for so-called “regrettable substitutes” to be adopted if they’re cheaper. Back in 2000, lead- and cadmium-based stabilizers in PVC were singled out as problematic and toxic. Those heavy metals have fallen out of use, but some manufacturers outside of Europe switched to organotin, says Vazquez-Rodriguez.

The upcoming plastic treaty should help to sort out some of these issues, with an appendix listing problematic chemicals. Which ones will be singled out is very much under discussion, but PVC, says Carney Almroth, is “an easy one,” along with polystyrene, which has also been banned in some countries from some uses, including single-use disposable food containers.

Some worry the plastics treaty will focus on waste management rather than on stemming production.

The treaty’s rough draft contains different options for how this list might be structured and used. At the most stringent end of the spectrum would be an international commitment to ban certain chemicals and polymers by a specific date. At the more lenient end, it might simply lay out guidance for how to consider chemicals, and leave it up to nations to decide what actions to take.

“The chemical industry and the fossil fuel industry are playing a dominant role at the negotiations,” says Enck, who worries the treaty won’t be hard-hitting enough, and will focus too much on waste management rather than on stemming production and eliminating harmful products. The Vinyl Institute is among the industry groups that have been attending treaty negotiations.

Carney Almroth would like to see more radical ideas considered. One would be to create a list of allowable chemicals, rather than expanding a list of banned ones. “Right now, we’re in a situation where we have 350,000 synthetic chemicals, and we theoretically invent 70 chemicals an hour,” she says. “If we look at this complexity, and then try to imagine some way to regulate this, it becomes an impossible task.”

But imagine limiting the plastics market to a set number of polymers and additives with known and acceptable risks, she says. “That’s the dream scenario.”