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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 Insitute include:
- energy efficiency
- thermal insulating value
- low contribution to green house gasses (ghg)
- Concerns about dioxin: "...dioxin levels in the environment have been declining for decades, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. During this time, production and use of vinyl have soared."
- Concerns about the health of workers: "The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued strict regulations in 1975, and there have been no documented cases of angiosarcoma among PVC production workers whose careers in the industry began after the new regulations were promulgated."
- Concerns about indoor air quality: Vinyl doesn't contribute directly to VOCs. Vinyl flooring and vinyl backed carpet can meet indoor air quality standards like Green Label Plus™ for carpet and Floorscore™ for resilient flooring.
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
These are conclusions relating to flooring quoted from the executive summaries in both the EU Commission and USGBC reports.
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
- Cradle-through-use: VCT and sheet vinyl are worst for cancer-related impacts; VCT and sheet vinyl vie with linoleum for worst on combined health impacts among alternatives studied.
- Addition of end-of-life: VCT and sheet vinyl are worst for cancer and combined health impacts among alternatives studied.
- Addition of occupational exposures: VCT and sheet vinyl are worst for cancer and combined health impacts among alternative studied, except for the scenarios with lower-end estimates of occupational and end-of life exposures.
- For other toxic risks, no material among alternatives studied consistently dominates. Vinyl is worst for the low-end emissions estimates, while cork is worst for the medium and high-end estimates.
Environmental impact Sheet vinyl (not VCT) performs worst among alternatives studied on all impact categories except eutrophication, for which linoleum is worst."
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:
- Check out the underlying assumptions of the study. All studies make assumptions and they should be clearly noted.
- Know what impacts are being considered. Are they impacts that you and your client are concerned about?
- Know what phases of the product are being included, ie material extraction, manufacture, use, and/or afterlife.
- What impacts are being considered? Many LCAs leave out the environmental health impacts all together. .
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 at at times preferable in many applications.by: Sue Norman