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April/May 2007
The Poison Plastic
The Satya Interview with Michael Schade


Sam Suds. Courtesy of CHEJ.org

Each year over 14 billion pounds of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are produced in the U.S. The hidden costs of this commonly used plastic damages our air, soil, water and health.

Michael Schade, of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, coordinates a national campaign to phase out PVC. The campaign focuses on preventing harm by swaying decision-makers from producing, using and disposing of PVC consumer products and packaging. It also supports communities hardest hit by the environmental injustices caused by the PVC industry. In the past two years, the campaign has successfully moved major companies away from this unnecessary toxic plastic and towards safer, healthier alternatives. Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Wal-Mart and Crabtree & Evelyn have all committed to phase out their use of PVC in packaging. The campaign’s current focus is Target.

Kymberlie Adams Matthews had the opportunity to get the latest from the PVC crusader himself, Michael Schade.

What common products are made using PVC?
While the vast majority of PVC in the U.S. is used in the construction industry—building materials such as piping, siding, flooring, roofing—we’ve focused our campaign on common consumer products such as toys, baby products, packaging, food wrap, clothing, etc., because they are products people are most familiar with. In addition, these short-lived, consumer products account for more than 70 percent of PVC disposed of as solid waste, ending up in dioxin-forming incinerators and leaking landfills.

What impact does PVC have on human health?
Chemicals released during PVC’s lifecycle can cause cancer, endocrine disruption, endometriosis, neurological damage, birth defects and impaired child development, reproductive and immune system damage, and more. These chemicals, including mercury, dioxins and phthalates, aren’t just released into the air, they are entering our bodies.

Do you know that new shower curtain smell? That’s actually the smell of toxic chemicals off-gassing. The EPA did a study of vinyl shower curtains and found that one new shower curtain can lead to elevated levels of dangerous toxins in your home for over one month! PVC children’s toys and baby products often contain dangerous reproductive toxins known as phthalates which can leach out of the plastic and enter the child’s body. These chemicals are so bad they’ve been banned from use in toys in Europe, but they’re still sold here! There is a double standard where companies are making safer products in other countries while selling more hazardous products here.

There’s no question about it, chemical companies are trespassing on our bodies. I don’t remember giving Dow Chemical permission to put these chemicals in my body, do you? PVC isn’t good news for our animal friends either. Many of these endocrine-disrupting chemicals are wreaking havoc on wildlife around the world, from fish and birds in the Great Lakes to polar bears in the Arctic.

PVC is problematic from production to disposal. Can you discuss this?
What makes PVC unique from most other plastics is that it’s chlorinated. It cannot be produced without using highly hazardous chemicals including chlorine gas, cancer-causing vinyl chloride monomer and ethylene dichloride. These chemicals are harmful to both workers and community residents living on the fenceline of PVC factories, suffering from air and water pollution. Also, PVC can’t be used without toxic additives, including lead, cadmium, and phthalates, posing [further] risks to consumers.

To make matters worse, dioxins are released when PVC is manufactured and burned in incinerators. Dioxins are a highly toxic group of chemicals that build up in our bodies and the food chain, causing cancer and harm to the immune and reproductive systems. PVC is the leading contributor of chlorine to municipal solid waste incinerators, backyard burn barrels, medical waste incinerators, and secondary copper smelters, which together account for an estimated 80 percent of dioxin air emissions. For example, more than 100 municipal waste incinerators in the U.S. burn 500 or 600 million pounds of PVC a year.

Can PVC products be recycled? What is the significance of the number 3?
PVC can technically be recycled, but it is very difficult because the many additives used make it impossible to retain the unique properties of the original formulation. In fact, PVC can contaminate and ruin other recyclable plastics because of these additives. One PVC bottle can contaminate a recycling load of 100,000 recyclable bottles! That’s why the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers have declared PVC a contaminant and organizations like the GrassRoots Recycling Network has been working to phase it out.

One way to be sure if the packaging of a product is made from PVC is to look for the number “3” inside or the letter “V” underneath the universal recycling symbol. Just remember bad news comes in three’s, don’t buy PVC!

PVC plants are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color, making the production of PVC a major environmental justice concern for neighboring residents. Can you discuss this?
The entire lifecycle of PVC is an issue of environmental justice and racism. Many PVC plants are located near poor and communities of color. These facilities have poisoned workers and fenceline neighbors, polluted the air, contaminated drinking water supplies and even wiped entire neighborhoods off the map.

I went on an environmental health delegation to Mossville, LA, a few years ago and was absolutely blown away by the amount of industry in such a concentrated area. Air monitoring conducted by the EPA has shown that PVC plants have emitted concentrations of vinyl chloride, a human carcinogen, more than 120 times higher than the ambient air standard—making the air unhealthy to breathe. The plants have polluted this community so badly, a significant portion of Mossville families were forced to relocate. This area was literally a ghost town. All you could see was broken down houses and places where driveways once stood. Testing by the federal government found the average Mossville resident has three times more dioxin in their blood than the average U.S. citizen. In addition, testing of breast milk from local mothers found elevated levels of dioxins as high as 30 percent above the national average. As a result, community members [past and present] suffer from all sorts of health problems.

What about workers in PVC plants?
Studies have linked working in vinyl chloride production facilities to an increased likelihood of developing diseases including angiosarcoma of the liver, a rare form of liver cancer, brain cancer, lung cancer, lymphomas, leukemia and liver cirrhosis. In 2004 a PVC plant in Illinois exploded, sending a plume of toxic smoke for miles. Five workers were killed, four towns were evacuated, several highways closed, a no-fly zone declared, and 300 firefighters from 27 surrounding communities battled the flames for three days.

You are currently urging Target to join other retailers in phasing out PVC products and packaging. What efforts are being made? Have you seen any success?
We initially contacted Target in the spring of 2006, with a coalition of over 60 health and environmental organizations. Unfortunately Target was not very responsive so we kicked off a public campaign October 11th with a national day of action. Nearly 30 stores all over the country faced demonstrations. Some protesters wore hazmat suits and carried a giant, inflatable rubber ducky, held signs, handed out flyers to customers and delivered letters to store managers. As part of this campaign, we also launched a major internet campaign at pvcfree.org featuring a new spoof video “Sam Suds and the Case of PVC, the Poison Plastic.”

Other retailers and companies like Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Nike, Ikea, H&M, Johnson & Johnson, Honda and many others have committed to phasing out PVC in products and/or packaging. Target has responded, indicating they are committed to exploring alternatives to PVC. It is a good sign, however, we’d like to see real action from Target.

I love Sam Suds the Poison Investigator. What was the objective in creating the animated short? What reactions have you received?
I think activists spend too much time thinking that if we tell people enough facts, they will change. But our message often doesn’t get through all of the noise. We wanted to create something different, interesting, funny and informative. The response we’ve received has been incredible and overwhelming. Ever since we launched the video, I’ve been swamped with phone calls and e-mails from people around the world letting us know how much they loved the video and are no longer going to buy PVC products.

I know that many of our veg and vegan readers use PVC products as alternatives to leather (shoes, wallets, belts, etc.). Are there safer, less toxic options to PVC?
The good news is that safer, cost-effective alternatives are readily available for virtually every use of the poison plastic. Examples of alternatives include natural fibers, plant-based plastics, and other plastics such as PET, HDPE, LDPE, PEVA and EVA. For instance, PVC-free shower curtains made out of a safer plastic called PEVA or EVA can be purchased at Ikea, Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
The solution is to phase out PVC—there is really no place for it in the 21st century. Just like we’ve worked to stop exposing children to lead paint, we must take steps toward the next generation in public and health policy by getting unnecessary, dangerous materials like PVC off the market.

For information visit www.pvcfree.org.

 

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