Several product charts have been updated.

February 2008

Vinyl in a nutshell

Poly Vinyl Chloride, better known as PVC, has a long history used in a wide range of building materials from pipes to wall and floor coverings. Durability and economical up front costs are it's primary functional advantages. In terms of sustainability, the PVC controversy is centered primarily around the health related concerns for workers during the manufacturing phase of the products, environmental release of toxins during production, as well as the release of toxics from products when they burn. One of the principle toxics of concern are dioxins, which have negative environmental impacts and in turn negative health impacts on people. Dioxins are carcinogenic persistent bio accumulative toxins (PBTs). Dioxins are created during the manufacture and burning of chlorinated materials; that's the "C" in PVC. PVC can be either hard or soft. Soft forms of PVC have plasticizers called, pthalates, that make them soft. Pthalates have been linked to reproductive health and respiratory issues.
EPA Dioxin and related compounds pagei
University of Rochester, pthalate info & study summaryi

The documentary, Blue Vinyl, helped launch the public's awareness of PVC as a potential environmental and occupational health risk. It highlights the concerns relating to cancer rates among workers in manufacturing facilities and surrounding communities.

One part of the mission of the Healthy Building Network is to help eliminate the use of building products that pose environmental health risks. High on their list of materials are those that release PBTs into the environment. They've concluded that PVC falls into this category. A few quotes sum up their assessment of PVC: "When its entire life cycle is considered, PVC appears to be associated with more dioxin formation than any other single product." "It has no place on the palette of green building materials."
Briefing paper with dioxin formation quotei
Article with no place on palette quotei

The US Green Building Council has been considering whether a PVC free or PVC alternative material credit should be included in their LEED rating systems. As a part of the decision making process, a technical advisory group of the USGBC studied the impacts of PVC in four building materials categories: widow frames, pipe, siding, and resilient flooring. One quote from the Technical FAQ section of their findings states: "While PVC's performance is better than some of the alternative materials studied if end-of-life and occupational issues are not included, PVC is consistently the worst among the materials studied if occupational exposure and end-of-life issues such as backyard burning and landfill fires are included."
PVC study info i

The Vinyl Institute is a trade association whose mission includes promoting the use of vinyl. Highlights of environmental benefits of PVC sited by the Institute include:

The Vinyl Institute responds to: Vinyl & Environment info i

Life Cycle Assessment studies sited by the Vinyl Institute: "A 2004 study of environmental life-cycle analyses (LCAs) of PVC and competing building materials by the European Commission (EC) found that PVC offers environmental benefits equal to or better than those of other materials in many applications."
Vinyl & Environment info i
European Commission Report pdf i
European Commission

Drawing Conclusions

These are conclusions relating to flooring quoted from the executive summaries in both the EU Commission and USGBC reports.

USGBC Report

Resilient flooring is one of the four application categories studied by the USGBC. Sheet vinyl and VCT are compared to linoleum and cork.

"Human Health Impact

European Commission

Flexible sheet vinyl is compared to linoleum, wood, tile, and carpet.

"Most flooring application studies conclude that linoleum has comparable or slightly fewer environmental impacts compared to PVC flooring of equivalent quality in the production phase. One study (IPU 0013) states that wooden flooring tends to have lower impacts than PVC and linoleum, but is more demanding in the use and maintenance phase. There is little LCA information about carpeting, a main competitor for flooring applications."

This "nutshell" overview of PVC is intended to give you a foundation in the basics of PVC and it's environmental impacts. As you read further into these reports, an understanding of LCAs is critical to understanding the findings, so, I'm adding a few LCA tips here:

The "ifs" in the USGBC statement help clarify the basis of the controversy surrounding the use of PVC and highlights the differences in LCAs. Whether you consider PVC to be an acceptable material for use in buildings or not depends upon what impacts you consider and how you weight those impacts. The USGBC report looked at both the human health and the environmental impacts and gives findings based on each category of impacts. Some people feel the two impact categories can not be kept separate. And, simply put, consider the health risks related to dioxin release and exposure to be like a trump card that supersedes any potential benefits; making PVC an unacceptable building material. Still others, see the environmental health issues as one piece of the whole picture and find on balance that PVC is acceptable and at times preferable in many applications.

by: Sue Norman