HEALTH CONCERNS ABOUT
The effects of PVC on health and the environment has received media attention lately, causing me to wonder about the safety and environmental impact of all types of plastics. What I found convinced me that whenever a choice can be made between a product made from natural material and one made from plastic, I'll go with the natural material.
PVC (polyvinyl chloride) commonly known as vinyl, is the plastic used in products when flexibility is important. Teething rings, toys, window shades, medical supplies, water pipes, plastic wraps, siding, flooring, rain gear, shower curtains, are just some products that often use PVC plastic. PVC production has increased 100 times during the last 40 years. PVC is both a health hazard and a pollutant.
PVC HEALTH ISSUES
PVC contains pthalates, lead, cadmium, light stabilizers, heat stabilizers, anti-oxidants, barium, and other chemical compounds.
Pthalates (pronounced "thalates") are chemical compounds that make PVC soft and elastic and account for a high percentage of a finished product's weight. Pthalates never chemically bind to the plastic and have a tendency to leach at a rate of up to 1% each year. The European Union Scientific Committee reported in April of 1998 that the two most common pthalates, DEHP and DINP, seeped from PVC toys at potentially dangerous levels. DEHP is the most widely used phthalate in PVC plastics, and has been labeled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen. Bottles of DINP used in the lab, the phthalate most commonly used in toys, must be labeled with a warning that reads in part: "May cause cancer; harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin, and if swallowed; possible risk of irreversible effects..." A typical teething ring may contain 40% by weight of DINP.
High levels of lead are also found in PVC. Studies have shown that vinyl windows can deteriorate from the effects of the heat and sun. This deterioration releases lead dust at dangerous levels. Vinyl window shades containing lead have been banned in the U.S. What about toys made from PVC that are left in the sun? A study conducted by Greenpeace and the University of North Carolina raised some concern that the same type of deterioation can happen in toys.
The disposal of PVC can also impact human health through our environment. One of the most toxic chemicals known to humans - dioxin - is a by-product of both the manufacturing and the incineration of certain chlorine based products, including PVC. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies dioxin as a Class I Carcinogen. Exposure to dioxin has been shown to cause reprodutive and developmental problems, immune system damage and hormone interference.
Dioxin is in our foods and is fat-soluble, accumulating in higher and higher concentrations as it travels up the food chain. There is no way to rid our bodies of dioxin; except through pregnancy and lactation: Dioxin crosses the placenta and travels through breast milk.
Products, including toys, made with PVC require no warning or ingredient label making it very difficult to tell which plastics are PVC and which are not. Resin numbers found inside the circle of arrows on a plastic product can help - products labeled "2", "4", or "5" are not PVC based, but many toys and products do not display resin codes.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER PLASTICS?
While PVC has been in the news, and is an important health issue especially for our young children, other plastics cause environmental and health problems as well.
Most plastic products are not recycled and are incinerated or accumulate in our landfills. The plastic that is recycled is rarely pure because many different types of resins are mixed and creating a product which is not appealing to most manufacturers. Recycled plastic is used to produce items such as polyester and plastic lumber, and are not themselves recyclable. The most difficult plastic to recycle, PVC, does not even reach a recycling rate of 1%.
The Berkeley Plastics Task Force stated in a 1996 report that the plastic industry releases 14% of the most toxic chemicals into our environment. A U.S. Food & Drug Administration study has shown that bisphenol A, a component of polycarbonate plastic, mimics the effects of natural estrogen and can migrate into liquids. Studies have shown that Bisphenol A, found in baby bottles, juice cups, and other food containers, can leach into fatty foods including baby formulas at room temperature. Bisphenol A is used as part of the ingredients used in plastic dental fillings and to coat baby teeth to protect them from cavities. Cadmium, a plastic stabilizer, is considered to have endocrine disrupting or reproductive effects.
The rate of cancer among American children is rising - it is now the most common form of fatal childhood disease and is increasing at a rate of 1% each year. There are no clear cut reasons, but many experts associate the increase with the result of growing exposure to new chemicals in the environment. A 1997 New York Times article discussed the rise of childhood cancers and printed the following quotes: Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and director of environmental medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine believes that "The increases are too rapid to reflect genetic changes, and better diagnostic detection is not a likely explanation." Carol Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency stated "I'm talking about moving beyond the chemical-by-chemical approaches of the past, and instead looking at a child's total cumulative risk from all exposures to toxic chemicals."
WHAT TO DO
The World Wildlife Federation suggests these practical steps:
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