Medical Musings: Is PVC good or bad?

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) has been a major target of the environmental activist group Greenpeace for at least 20 years, dating to activism by chemist Michael Braungart. The focal point of Greenpeace was dioxins. The Vinyl Institute was formed in 1982 because of health-related attacks on PVC pipe by the steel industry. Since then PVC has been under attack for questions surrounding vinyl chloride monomer and phthalate plasticizers.

Last week new problems emerged. The American Public Health Association (APHA) urged a reduction in use of PVC in hospitals and schools. Also last week, an advocacy group called Clean and Healthy New York released a report questioning the safety of chemicals such as PVC used in 72 mattress models on sale in the United States.

For Allen Blakey, vice president of industry and government affairs at the The Vinyl Institute (Arlington, VA), it was a bad week.

"I had sensed that direct attacks on vinyl had tapered off in the past couple years until last week," Blakey said in an interview with  yesterday.  "Why?  PVC continues to prove its cost-effectiveness in myriad applications, including many high-value applications (material of choice for blood bags, medical tubing, tamper-resistant packaging, electrical wire insulation, pipe delivering drinking water, etc.)," Blakey said in a follow-up email.   "I wonder if some groups have moved to other targets because of a lack of overall success attacking PVC.  Example: Health Care Without Harm, which used to issue a constant stream of reports and releases against PVC, has done nothing new on PVC for years. The down economy may also have 'helped' - people stick with cost-effective materials. Finally, I think we have effectively marshaled credible facts and third-party evidence against the major allegations."

No fact checking

Blakey says that officials at APHA never called The Vinyl Institute to check their facts and get perspective. As a result, there were some statements in the APHA resolution that were outright wrong. Lead and cadmium, for example, are no longer used as stabilizers in PVC. He also faults the APHA for making no mention of what he describes as a positive review of phthalate plasticizers by industry groups where they didn't find actual problems despite  more than 60 years of use.

"This resolution seemed aimed not so much at PVC as ingredients of PVC," says Blakely

And that's also a problem because rapid change is taking place.  Producers have found alternative plasticizers. In an interesting recent announcement supporting Blakey's point, German chemical giant Lanxess and a renewable materials company called BioAmber announced an agreement to jointly develop succinic acid-based plasticizers that are both renewable and phthalate-free.  The goal is to develop plasticizers that can exceed the performance of phthalates at competitive prices.

In another example to support his pojnt, Blakey noted how producers have developed vinyl formulations for flooring that meet new indoor air quality standards.

For the chemically uninformed, Blakey compares PVC to making baked goods. "You start with PVC and then you add in a vast range of ingredients to make a broad range of formulations."

Blakey's points are well made. PVC has been an enormously useful material since its commercialization by BF Goodrich more than 80 years ago. It has a useful property profile including inherent flame retardance and chemical resistance. It's also inexpensive. And, interestingly, in this day of daily talk of the benefit of carbon-neutral materials, PVC relies less on fossil fuel feedstock than any other major thermoplastic. Brine is a major feedstock in PVC.

Due diligence lacking

But as it so happened, plastics have been used where they fit well and provide an economic advantage. Engineers have always done significant testing of a material's fitness for use. There has not been a similar due diligence on health issues.

As a result, we find out some time later that heavy metals and some chemicals used to make plastics have adverse health effects. As we've seen with bisphenol-A (BPA), it's a messy, drawn-out affair with a lot of studies and a lot of politics.

The public is left in the lurch.

I would like to see the chemical/plastics industry do more proactive, upfront health testing on their materials rather than protecting market share after the fact.

I was at a medical conference two years ago where an executive of a major resin company proudly showed me his replacement for PVC and polycarbonate in healthcare applications. "What testing have you done on any potential harmful side effects from this compound?" I asked.

He looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe it's time for a change.


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