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What is Polyvinyl Chloride?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 17, 2024
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Polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC or vinyl, is an inexpensive plastic so versatile it has become completely pervasive in modern society. The list of products made from PVC is exhaustive, ranging from phonograph records to drainage and potable piping, water bottles, cling film, credit cards and toys. More uses include window frames, rain gutters, wall paneling, doors, wallpapers, flooring, garden furniture, binders and even pens. Even imitation leather is made of it. In fact, it's hard to turn anywhere without seeing some form of this plastic.

In 1913, polyvinyl chloride became the first synthetic product ever patented. Its wide use is now in question, however, as it comes from a highly toxic production industry and potentially remains an environmental threat throughout all phases of its life. In addition to the toxic chemical processing required to make PVC, mounting research indicates a tendency for some products to leech harmful chemicals, with a possible link to health risks and environmental contamination.

Additionally, PVC is not biodegradable, a fact that manufacturers promote as a plus, while environmentalists count it among many of the plastic's drawbacks. They point to the ever-growing amounts of discarded products and shrinking landfills, and the potential for long-term leeching that could lead to ground water contamination. This material should not be burned, as it can release harmful gas, and recycling it is difficult because of the diverse additives used in various products.

One of the byproducts of the polyvinyl chloride manufacturing process is organochlorine. Though chlorine is found naturally in the environment in minerals such as salt, this type is different. Highly reactive, its effect in concentrated form can be very destructive, as seen in other manufacturing industries. Some familiar forms of organochlorines include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), banned in the 1970s; halon and CFCs, responsible for destroying the ozone; and DDT. Purportedly, the production of PVC results in the generation of more organochlorines than any other material.

Aside from the environment, human health is also a concern. Studies regarding initial outgassing of chemicals from plastics like those used in shower curtains, flooring and vinyl car interiors are ongoing. Leeching of a softening chemical called DEHP (di-2-ethyl hexyl phthalate) in products like vinyl IV bags used in the neonatal wards of some hospitals has also been a concern. Alternate softening agents are reportedly under consideration by the industry but require further testing.

Though polyvinyl chloride products have been used without apparent problems to human health for many years, the concern is that growing toxic waste created by the process, possible leeching, and plastic's non-biodegradable status will eventually and inevitably lead to problems that could be catastrophic. The conservative trend is headed towards environmentally friendly, biodegradable alternatives. Among others, these include wood, paper, copper, steel, and clay. Chlorine-free plastics, such as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polyisobutylene, may also be preferred over PVC, although most of these are not biodegradable.

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Discussion Comments
By anon305759 — On Nov 27, 2012

Does anybody know about dioxin and burning plastic? Does it cause petechiae?

By anon295233 — On Oct 05, 2012

Dioxins are formed from the incomplete burning of plastic. I believe they are used in the casing of fridge freezers and if your freezer is charred I would advise you to remove it from the house. The mistake I made was getting rid of it. If I still had it environmental health could have checked for dioxins and other possible chemicals. If you do get it checked, could you post back with the results?

By anon281649 — On Jul 24, 2012

Can anybody tell me if pvc is used on the inside of white goods, e.g. fridges, washing machines, etc. I also have noticed a plastic burning smell inside my freezer and noticed it is charred. Does anybody know how dioxin is created and what the conditions for it to be formed are.

By anon276907 — On Jun 27, 2012

PVC is terrible stuff. I think I have dioxin poisoning from an old fridge freezer which had burnt plastic from inside the freezer compartment. This had been going on for a long time before I realized it. There was a copper pipe inside the actual freezer which was supposed to melt the ice but instead accidentally the plastic guard pushed up against it and it had been melting for a long time.

By pvc — On Apr 03, 2012

I think a big concern with PE products is their ability to degrade. I am not certain if this is as a result of UV radiation and thus only an outdoor concern, but I have never heard of PE replacing PVC in the home. PVC is incredibly easy to install for plumbing and is very resistant to temperature change.

By anon230374 — On Nov 18, 2011

That was the dumbest thing I have ever heard. You should probably do some more research before posting something as relevant and witless as that. PVC only gives off chloride and you can't get any more from PVC as you could from swimming in a pool that had chlorine in it, and the government doesn't control everything.

By anon227307 — On Nov 04, 2011

Governments quickly lose their ability to care. Concentration camp officials spent the day torturing and killing people and then went home to an apparently 'normal' family life, without a trace of the inhumane treatment they practiced when eliminating the Jews and others they considered undesirables. It can take from five to 50 years for the results of populations being exposed to toxic substances. We are just part of very large experiments -- guinea pigs.

By anon220128 — On Oct 05, 2011

We can't go a single day without coming in contact with something made of PVC. Let's be honest, if PVC were harmful or bad we all would have affects from it and they wouldn't use it in such a variety of products. Flooring, window frames, door frames, pipes, cars, cords, kitchen appliances, kids toys, house siding, clothes. I mean think about it. Look them up.

By anon220124 — On Oct 05, 2011

The reason this material is massively produced and is used in every day products is because it isn't a harmful plastic when it is processed. What other companies may do with this material can alter it though. Putting in additives, or people using them incorrectly. Burning a thermoset/non biodegradable plastic at a high enough temperature only puts the material back to its original state of carbon compound/soot.

By anon159836 — On Mar 13, 2011

It's slowly taking us out. it's in our water delivery system. Affects male population most. Drink beer.

By anon132432 — On Dec 06, 2010

Is polyvinylchloride a good fire retardant? --NZMV

By anon118852 — On Oct 15, 2010

This is absolutely crazy! I'd heard of plastic being bad for the environment, but never understood why. I'm currently reading "Hot, Flat, and Crowded", so it's scary how much this goes along with that. We need some chemical engineers to come up with better materials, and to figure out how to clean up the current mess! Where there's a will, there's a way!

By anon76638 — On Apr 11, 2010

In response to #5.

O.K. I checked your company out.Put down the Kool-Aid, pal.

Your company has come up with a way to biodegrade the PVC quickly! Great we all humans love you for that! Thank You for accelerating the off-gassing of pcbs, dioxins, and genetic mutating chemicals by your company's fast degrading of PVC. Chlorine is not biodegradable.

All you guys are doing is making it off gas faster to make it brittle and break it down faster. Gee, thanks.

I will be sure to tell my sister who has terminal breast cancer from chlorine and dioxin poisoning through outgassing of the foam padding in bras that, through transdermal osmosis, transfer the chlorine dioxin directly into the fatty tissue of her breast.

Again, thank you very much.

ladies want more info about the REAL cause of breast cancer? write me. Ill share

By anon74182 — On Mar 31, 2010

I am not a chemist or anything like that but, as a concerned Grandmother, I would like to know why such products are sold as little children's belts, toys, etc. My daughter recently bought belts for her 1 1/2 year old daughter at WalMart and found a label saying it contained chemicals that are known to cause cancer. I think it is shameful to make money selling these products at the risk of our Children's health and lives!!!

By anon73848 — On Mar 29, 2010

is vinyl chloride used in the processing in the photographic industry? please would be most grateful for an answer.

By anon62388 — On Jan 26, 2010

In the 1970s i worked at a wallpaper warehouse in indianapolis, ind. for three years. they specialized in vinyl wallcovering for commercial and residential applications.

this was a very large operation with truckloads of this stuff coming in weekly. as i recall most of my coworkers, including me, were sick a lot with chest colds, etc.

After reading this article, i wonder if the wallpaper had anything to do with our aliments. m. cooper

By Suevette — On Aug 27, 2009

I work for a company that fabricates polyethylene foam cushioning. It is made from the resins at a facility I do not frequent. What are the health risks to an individual who is predisposed to health issues by being around the poly vinyl chloride used in manufacturing for the end result planks that are used at our facility? What information do you have regarding the time and proximity of being around the plank product?

By anon10983 — On Apr 06, 2008

As a child I grew up seeing pvc everywhere but only now do I know the effects of this plastic.... I can't believe this!

By boa — On Jul 06, 2007

I beg to differ with you. In the North East USA, PVC dominates commerce so we have little choice. When i was in Kuai (oldest Hawian island) i saw PE plastic pipe with all the usual fittings assemble very easily, in much the same way as PVC. People might not realize that so many products are made with PVCand then are thown out, very often ending up in loocal incinerators and creating poisons which can affect us or our budgets beyonde PVC puchase.. Please use a search engine with both terms: pvc + dioxin Also consider the impact of dioxin.

It becomes difficult to appreciate why such harmful practices are so engrained in any good country.

By anon2312 — On Jul 06, 2007

I am not a chemist, but I think a big concern with PE products is their ability to degrade. I am not certain if this is as a result of UV radiation and thus only an outdoor concern, but I have never heard of PE replacing PVC in the home. PVC is incredibly easy to install for plumbing and is very resistant to temperature change. I wish my copper water pipes were PVC since my winter hot water takes forever to warm up. I could easily cut and shape my pipes to add faucets etc, but I do not know how to braze copper pipes together. ANY idiot can put PVC together and so I will have a much harder time with my copper pipe instead of PVC. Burning the stuff is horrid... putting certain softeners with it to make squishy baby teething toys is also stupid, but in the home, PVC rules for a good reason.

By boa — On May 09, 2007

I really like this short article as i have been concerned about PVC products. Why does the NE USA flood the market with PVC?? I buy drain pipeand other building products and feel there is a monopoly with these products in the form of PVC. It is almost mafia like. I would much prefer PE products, knowing i am not stressing or harming future generations with ppolutants. I have seen equal products made with PE, but these are not sold in the NE USA. Why can't the PE industry advertise the benefits of PE over PVC?

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