PVCApril 30, 2010 —
Last Monday, Lois Gibbs came in to tell her story about the Love Canal and to give a lecture about PVC. Her story was an extreme and devastating one; when she moved to Niagara Falls, she discovered that her neighborhood, Love Canal, was built on top of a toxic waste dump. Her seven-year-old son and her newborn baby girl both got very sick for no explainable reason. She then found out that the entire neighborhood had an extremely high rate of health abnormalities. For example, 56% of the infants were born with birth defects, and miscarriages increased by 300% when women moved into the area. These are heartbreaking statistics. Lois then transformed from a housewife into an activist. She organized and educated the community, and together they challenged the government to change policies on the dumping of hazardous materials. Eventually, the 833 residents of the Love Canal community were relocated.
But these chemicals are all over and the health effects are more widespread than just in toxic waste dumps. And the worst part is that some of them are not regulated by the chemical control act even though they have been proven to have adverse health effects. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is probably the most common of these. Labeled as “vinyl,” it is the third most widely produced plastic, noted for its flexibility and durability. PVC usually contains harmful chemical additives such as lead and cadmium. It’s commonly used in flooring, siding, pipes, figurines, inflatable products, tubing, and shower curtains. And all of these products have a possibility of leaching out the toxic additives, especially when heated. This is what makes owning a vinyl shower curtain especially dangerous; the curtain gets heated up and the steam from the shower becomes hundreds of times more potent with harmful chemicals.
Even though PVC is not banned by law, many companies have agreed to phase out or stop selling products made with PVC due to pressure put on by grassroots activists such as Lois Gibbs. Some of these stores include Walmart and Target; they have agreed to phase out PVC both in their products and in their packaging.
While I was learning this I realized something: over the weekend my roommate bought a new shower curtain that reeked of “new shower curtain smell.” This is usually a sign of PVC; the chlorine is what makes it both smelly and toxic. And even though it was from Target, I looked it up online and discovered it was made of vinyl, much to my dismay.
I was determined to rid of this shower curtain. Then I found out the box had been recycled and taken away by the garbage man the night before… no matter, I would take it in without the box and put up a fight. This was my chance to prove something to Target, that they couldn’t just say they would go PVC-free and not follow through.
But I did a little more research and discovered that they had only agreed to phase out PVC by reducing the number of shower curtains containing PVC by 88% by spring 2008. And I looked online; on their website, less than 12% of the shower curtains are listed to be made with vinyl. Others are made of cloth, polyester, or vinyl substitutes that don’t contain chlorine.
What makes me the most angry about this is two things. One, consumers that don’t know about PVC or vinyl (which most of them don’t) have absolutely no idea if they are purchasing harmful products. “Vinyl” is not usually a word with negative implications; if anything, it reminds consumers of old, vintage record players. But vinyl as it is used in commercial plastics IS harmful.
And, the consumers that are conscious about vinyl probably know about Target’s agreement to phase out PVCs, so they trust the products purchased from there. But as with any large company, there are hidden sides of everything, and the consumer has to be wary of products purchased even from “eco-friendly” companies.
So I was defeated. With no logical case to make and a receipt much older than 30 days, I decided this was not my moment to change the world. And now that the product was already purchased, it would be even worse to discard it and purchase a more environmentally friendly option.
This is because most of the issues with polyvinyl chloride don’t come from the product’s usage, but its production and disposal because of dioxin emissions. Dioxins are extremely toxic carcinogens that known to cause cancer. The production of PVC is extremely dangerous to its workers and the neighborhood around the plant. They are known to get health and mental defects from these chemicals.
And the disposal is even worse. Although there is a recyclable symbol on the bottom of all PVC products, these products should not be recycled. The symbol on PVC products has the number 3 in it, and usually a V underneath it.
When PVC is recycled, it leaks chemicals onto the recyclable plastics and ruins them. PVC can only be placed in landfills or incinerated. The landfills are known to leak toxic chemicals, especially in the case of Love Canal as described above. And when PVC is incinerated it emits dioxin fumes proportional to the level of chlorine in the plastic.
So I ended up not returning the curtain because all of the most harmful effects had already happened or would happen anyways. I figure since I’m only going to be around this shower curtain for a month, as long as I take really quick showers with the window open, hopefully my shower curtain is not going to kill me. It takes a high concentration of these chemicals to produce adverse health effects. So to end this post on a somewhat uninspired note, I am going to deal with the shower curtain and put my environmental efforts elsewhere.