In what could be a trendsetting move, the fifth largest retailer in the U.S. agrees to systematically reduce PVC use in many of its products.
Jean M. Hoffman
The Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ), Falls Church, Va., made headlines last month with its campaign against polyvinyl-chloride (PVC) use in consumer goods and packaging sold by Target Corp. Target did not respond to requests for an interview, but reportedly told the CHEJ that it will systematically reduce PVC (also called vinyl) in its own brand of products. And it is collaborating with vendors whose PVC products it sells to get the material out of its stores. Vinyl has been in the crosshairs of the CHEJ and other environmental organizations for years. But has the most recent anti-PVC campaign gone too far, or not far enough? The answer might depend on which side of the vinyl fence you stand.
"We target PVC because it is the worst plastic for our health and environment, releasing toxic chemicals that cause cancer and birth defects,” says CHEJ PVC campaign coordinator Mike Schade. “Vinyls often contain toxic additives such as lead and phthalates. These chemicals are not bound to the plastic and can leach out over time. When lead isn’t used, lesser-known metals such as organotins are substituted. Studies have suggested links between organotins and suppression of the immune system, birth defects, and impacts on the liver, bile duct, and pancreas. One of the more studied organotins, tributyltin (TBT), has been banned in the EU for use as an antifouling agent in boat paint, but has been found in PVC products.”
But some factions say critics are using too broad a brush to paint all PVC as harmful. The Vinyl Institute (VI) in Arlington, Va., expressed disappointment with the decision. The VI is a trade association of vinyl and vinyl-component suppliers. VI President Tim Burns says concerns are largely over lead in vinyl products. “This appears to be driven by fears over imported products containing lead, which have had high visibility in the news this year. Lead does not have to be used to make vinyl products, and it should be deliberately avoided in packaging and products for children.”
“Many polymers, including vinyl, require additives that serve as heat and light stabilizers,” explains VI Director of Public Affairs Allen Blakey. “The principal metals used to make stabilizers include tin, barium, zinc, calcium which are accepted by government agencies and, to a much less degree, cadmium and lead, for which there are regulatory limits. Lead-based stabilizers principally serve in vinyl wire and cable jacketing and insulation and are contained within the product. Even in these applications companies are moving to new or different stabilizers.
TBTs are not used as vinyl stabilizers, says Blakey. “These compounds have served as antifoulants in marine paints because they help prevent growth of microorganisms, barnacles, and seaweed on the hulls of ocean vessels. Commercial tin stabilizers used by the vinyl industry exhibit no biocidal properties, and it is important that they not be confused with the antifouling TBTs.”
Still, CHEJ’s Schade questions why lead is turning up in vinyl toys, lunch boxes, baby bibs, other consumer goods if it isn’t needed to make vinyl products? “In the U.S.,” Schade continues, “lead in PVCs first came to light in 1996 when the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found lead in vinyl mini-blinds. Soon after, many other vinyl products were found to contain lead. About 156,000 tons of lead are used each year in the worldwide production of PVC. And the world stock of PVC in use contains a staggering 3.2 million tons of lead.”
Blakey says it is not clear why lead is being found in imported toys. The CPSC has tested for lead in imported bibs and lunch boxes and concluded that the tested products were not likely to harm children, says VI’s Burns. “Nevertheless, our organization is concerned over the findings. Importers need to set and enforce quality control standards on the materials in their products no matter where they come from.”
Other evidence of problems comes from a study by the Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse, Brattleboro, Vt. The TPCH assists states with education and administration of toxics in packaging laws based on the Model Toxics in Packaging Legislation (formerly CONEG). The study, titled An assessment of heavy metals in packaging: Screening results using a portable X-ray fluorescence analyzer, found lead and cadmium levels in some packaging and inks exceeded regulatory levels set under so-called CONEG toxics-in-packaging laws. Some 19 states have adopted such laws, which prohibit deliberate use of toxic heavy metals (lead, cadmium, chromium, and mercury) and limit incidental levels to 100 ppm.
The TPCH screened 355 packaging samples made from representative materials including PVC, aluminum, glass, plastics (other than PVC), paper, and steel. Of the packaging tested, 16% exceeded the screening threshold of 100 ppm. Cadmium and lead were the most frequently detected of the four restricted heavy metals. According to the study, there were two types of packaging that dominated the samples failing the screening test: Flexible PVC and inks and colorants used in plastic shopping/ mailing bags. No rigid PVC packaging failed the tests.
In the TPCH project, 61% of the flexible plastic bags made from PVC didn’t comply. TPCH reports that almost all flexible PVC packaging samples tested were from products imported from Asia, according to the product label. “On the other hand,” says Blakey, “all of the clear, rigid PVC ‘blister’ packaging used for products passed TPCH’s screening.”
“There is no reason for PVC packaging to be out of compliance with state packaging laws,” says VI ’s Burns. “Wherever these problems are originating, the manufacturing/supply chain must do a better job to ensure compliance.”
The TPCH report reached similar conclusions: “Packaging specifications, written compliance certification, or the ‘word’ of suppliers is insufficient to document or ensure compliance, based on the experience of TPCH over the course of this project.” It says: “At a minimum, the supply chain should require analytic test results from the supplier prior to purchasing the packaging material or packaged product. Additionally, a quality assurance program should include periodic ‘spot checks’ to determine if heavy metals are present in the packaging to verify the validity of supplier claims.” The TPCH plans to soon start screening for compliance to gauge toxics in packaging.
Lead isn’t the only reason Target is phasing out PVC, claims CHEJ’s Schade. He points to a CHEJ flyer titled PVC: The poison plastic. It describes the plasticizer di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate. DEHP is an additive that softens a wide array of vinyl medical products, including blood bags and tubing. It is also what makes PVC toys soft and flexible. According to the CHEJ, “phthalates are a suspected carcinogen and reproductive toxicant. Children can be exposed to phthalates by chewing on vinyl toys. While it is still legal for U.S. retailers to sell PVC children’s and baby toys containing phthalates, the European Parliament voted in July, 2005 to permanently ban the use of certain toxic phthalates in toys.”
But DEHP and phthalate esters including DINP have been the targets of highly inflammatory scare campaigns, says VI’s Blakey. And independent sources have cast doubt on such claims. The former Surgeon General of the U.S., Dr. C. Everett Koop, disputed claims by environmental activists. “Families were unnecessarily frightened into believing their baby’s teething rings and vinyl toys were conduits of cancercausing chemicals,” wrote Koop in a 1999 Wall Street Journal article. “But based on our comprehensive review of every piece of scientific literature on the topic, conducted under the auspices of the American Council on Science and Health, we found that, in the words of the report, the use of DINP is ‘not harmful for children in the normal use of these toys.’”
According to Josef Ertl, Chairman of Vinyl2010, a nonprofit organization representing the EU, a recent EU risk assessment of phthalate plasticizers, “confirmed that the main generalpurpose plasticizers DINP and DIDP pose no risk to human health or the environment in any of their current applications.
Dioxins and Recycling
“Still, when PVC is manufactured, there’s significant pollution harming workers and neighbors such as in Mossville, La., and there’s no safe way to dispose of PVC products,” maintains CHEJ’s Schade “When burned in incinerators, PVC is a major source of dioxins, some of the most toxic chemicals ever studied. You can’t even recycle PVC as it can contaminate and ruin other recyclable plastics. In fact, one PVC bottle can contaminate a recycling load of 100,000 recyclable bottles.”
Dioxins are a family of chemicals comprising 75 different types of dioxin compounds and 135 related compounds called furans. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says dioxin and furan emissions to the environment in the U.S. have dropped 89% between 1987 and 2000. According to the agency, the principal identified sources of environmental release of dioxin may be grouped into five types: Combustion and incineration sources; metal smelting, refining and processing; chemical manufacturing/ processing; reservoir sources; and biological and photochemical processes.
“The VI and its member companies continue to study the potential for dioxin emissions from vinyl production and work on ways to reduce it. These studies show that, at most, the vinyl life cycle is a minor contributor to overall dioxin emissions in the U.S.,” says Blakey.
In fact, independent research has shown that, while vinyl production has tripled during the past 30 yr, dioxin levels in the U.S. have actually declined significantly. The EPA instituted dioxin reporting for certain industries, including chlorine producers and users and vinyl producers, in the year 2000. Data show the chlorine sector’s (including the vinyl sector) total air and water dioxin emissions have declined 70% in four years of reporting. In an EPA report titled An Inventory of Sources and Environmental Releases of Dioxin-Like Compounds in the United States for the Years 1987, 1995, and 2000, the agency stated that in 1987 and 1995, the leading source of dioxin emissions to the U.S. environment was municipal waste combustion. However, because dioxin emissions from municipal waste combustors fell, burning waste dropped to the 4th ranked source in 2000. Burning domestic refuse in backyard barrels remained fairly constant over the years, but in 2000, it emerged as the largest source of dioxin emissions in the U.S.
“As for the recycling issue, the vinyl industry,” says Blakey, “has taken the lead in developing automated sorting technology that large-scale recycling operations can use to separate different plastics more efficiently. These include systems developed by National Recovery Technologies, Nashville, Tenn.; ASOMA Instruments, Austin, Tex.; and Magnetic Separation Systems, Nashville, Tenn. The vinyl industry has also sponsored pilot recycling programs to evaluate the success of these systems and to test the feasibility of expanded recycling of vinyl.