For the second time in five years, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is bravely wading into the controversy surrounding vinyl. At the request of certain parties in the Green community, USGBC is trying to determine whether vinyl (from PVC pipes to vinyl flooring and surfacing) should be considered a hazard to the environment and, in turn, whether the use of vinyl should be discouraged by eco-conscious architects and designers through the USGBC's signature LEED rating system for Green buildings.

Much of the fire directed at vinyl comes from such often-esteemed organizations as Greenpeace -- which, on its Web site, called the vinyl industry "one of the ‘most toxic-producing industries on the planet'" -- and the Healthy Building Network (or HBN) -- which claims that vinyl contains and emits carcinogens harmful to Human health.

While no reasonable person would object to the goals behind the Green building movement, and while many share this passion for better preserving our Earth's precious resources and natural environment, architects and designers require sound facts in order to make good judgments about the products they specify in their building projects.

Unfortunately, the problem with many of the charges being leveled against vinyl is that they are either gross exaggerations of scientifically-proven facts or in direct ontravention to empirical evidence. Even worse, far too many in the design community have inadvertently absorbed this misinformation -- centering the vinyl debate less around fact than about hyperbolic fiction.

In the interest of correcting the record, and better informing the design community as it strives to create buildings that are better for the indoor environment and for the planet as a whole, it is therefore necessary to confront the core arguments against vinyl and to separate the fiction from the facts.

There are typically three charges leveled at vinyl by those who are attempting to spread their conviction that vinyl is bad for the environment. These anti-vinyl charges can be boiled down to the following three statements:

  • (Vinyl Production) All production of vinyl is inherently bad for the environment.
  • (Vinyl Use) Once installed, vinyl emits carcinogens and is therefore bad for the indoor environment.
  • (Vinyl Disposal) When disposed of, vinyl emits toxins and pollutes the environment. Much of the substance of these charges, however, upon closer examination, is unsupportable or even false.

To understand why, we must examine the facts surrounding each charge in turn.

Vinyl Production Charges. The anti-vinyl claim so fervently underscored by the Greenpeace quote -- that vinyl production is bad for the environment -- rests on the fact that, during the production of vinyl, a carcinogenic gas called vinyl chloride monomer (or VCM) is created. This emission of this gas is referenced in anti-vinyl documentaries such as Blue Vinyl and it is generally what critics have in mind when they express their concern about vinyl production as a source of harmful pollution. The fact that VCM itself is carcinogenic is not in dispute, though a careful read of the anti-vinyl claims will reveal that vinyl's critics devote much of their time to citing study after study about the harmful effects of VCM.

However, the core of the claim that vinyl production is harmful to the environment does not rest with the toxicity of VCM, but upon the notion that harmful levels of this toxin (VCM) are emitted into the environment. On this critical question, the vinyl critics' argument is considerably less persuasive.

While it is true that, prior to 1975, vinyl plant workers were exposed to this carcinogen as it was released into the work environment, this is largely due to the fact that before the 1970s, the carcinogenic effects of VCM (specifically angiosarcoma, an otherwise rare form of liver cancer) were not widely known.

Since 1975, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has implemented strict regulations concerning VCM emissions -- limiting the maximum workplace exposure to an average of one part per million over an eight-hour shift. Because of these findings and these regulatory changes, vinyl factories overhauled their production systems to recycle VCM off-gas back into a closed system. As a result, there have been no documented cases of this cancer amongst vinyl product factory workers who began working in these factories after the VCM-emissions controls procedures were reformed.

Indeed, emissions controls have proved so effective that "no vinyl chloride monomer was detected" when peer-reviewed air monitoring studies were conducted to measure the progress of these factories' emissions controls. In fact, since it enacted its air toxins rule in 1976, the EPA reports that overall VCM emissions into the environment in the U.S. were cut by 400 tons per year for 10 years straight, resulting in a lifetime distribution cancer risk to less than one in a million persons, per EPA risk characterizations. In other words, because of changes in vinyl production methods, VCM gas does not endanger vinyl plant workers nor are its diminished emissions into the larger environment a significant threat to the environment or Human health.

Similar claims about the emission of harmful levels of dioxin during vinyl production have likewise proven to be either outdated or unfounded. Since Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) controls and regulations were enacted in the 1970s, dioxin levels in the environment have "decreased significantly": indeed, from 1987 to 1995, dioxin emissions dropped 80 percent.

As a result of these improved emissions controls, household fireplaces and vehicle exhaust each account for more dioxin emissions than vinyl manufacturing (whose annual emissions need only be measured in grams). The American environmental controls have likewise been emulated in Europe and Japan, where strict emissions controls are also mandated to protect the safety of vinyl plant workers and of the environment.

The truth of the matter is this: vinyl production is not bad for the environment under current emissions controls.

Vinyl Use Charges. While some vinyl critics attempt to infer that vinyl "contains" (and thereby, presumably, emits) the carcinogen VCM after vinyl has been produced, this inference is patently false. During the production of vinyl, VCM gas is chemically transformed into a solid called polyvinyl chloride (or PVC). The PVC compound is remarkably stable and does not revert to its VCM state.

To say that PVC is dangerous because the carcinogen VCM was used to make it is like saying that water is dangerous because unstable hydrogen was used to compose it. Imagine a world where we were afraid to use water to put out fires because the chemical composition of water includes two parts of the highly volatile explosive, hydrogen, and suddenly the notion that PVC is an environmental threat because VCM was used to create the PVC becomes likewise fanciful.

However, the heart of most vinyl critics' charges rests not with this inferential tidbit but with the explicit notion that vinyl itself emits other carcinogenic chemicals, particularly dioxin and phthalates, into the indoor environment, thereby polluting indoor air quality (IAQ) once installed. A review of the facts will show that this charge is also unsupportable or based on exaggeration.

While forest fires, metal smelting, and other manufacturing processes can all result in toxic levels of the carcinogen dioxin being emitted, PVC is a stable compound that emits potentially toxic levels of dioxin only when it is burned at low temperatures (such as those found in a wild fire), or heated to near-combustion temperatures; a state that vinyl is unlikely to reach in typical daily use. Though some would then respond that, during a building fire, the toxic dioxin of vinyl would certainly be emitted -- posing a risk to firefighters -- and that, on that basis, vinyl should not used in buildings, a more careful consideration would cause one to realize that all burning building materials emit toxins (including dioxin); which is why firefighters are encouraged to wear oxygen masks. Further, it is probably safe to say that our courageous firefighters have more pressing concerns when they enter a burning building than the chemical composition of the smoke.

Furthermore, while plasticizers that include phthalates are added to many forms of vinyl to increase their pliability, and despite the fact that these plasticizers "migrate" (or are emitted) out of the vinyl matrix over long periods of time, claims that these plasticizers are harmful to humans were based on research conducted on laboratory rats. During these trials, the lab rats were exposed to the plasticizers until they developed cancer -- which was then cited as proof that these plasticizers were extremely toxic to humans as well.

But, in order to produce the same carcinogenic effect in humans as the researchers caused with their rodents' plasticizer exposure, a person would need to ingest 500 grams of plasticizer per day for 100 days -- far more plasticizer than is to be found in the typical vinyl installation. Perhaps more damning, when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission conducted their own study of the carcinogenic risk of these plasticizers, their conclusion was that, at most, the risk to humans was "extremely low".

The truth of the matter is this: the use of vinyl in installations is not harmful to the indoor environment. Indeed, some brands of vinyl have been proved to be better for indoor air quality than the favorite materials of vinyl's critics (namely linoleum and rubber). But more on this later.

Vinyl Disposal Charges. The third charge leveled by vinyl's critics is that when vinyl enters the waste stream it "decomposes," emitting carcinogenic dioxin and leaching toxic chemicals into an eco-system's groundwater. Because of its superior longevity to many alternative materials, vinyl tends to enter the waste stream at a lesser rate than favorites of PVC's critics, such as linoleum. However, the heart of the charge, that vinyl pollutes after it is trashed, is the least supportable of the anti-vinyl charges.

As noted previously, PVC is an extremely stable compound, and it does not emit toxic dioxin unless burned at low temperatures. By contrast, when burned at high temperatures, in properly certified incinerators, vinyl combustion no longer produces dioxin. Thus, vinyl in the waste stream is only a dioxin concern if the waste facility has poor fire controls or inadequate incineration facilities.

As for the notion that vinyl "decomposes" in the waste stream, recent claims to that effect have been proven to be false. For example, West Coast claims that vinyl waste was leaching vinyl chloride into landfills proved untrue, as the California Integrated Waste Management Board found the probable cause of such chemicals in the ecosystem to be "microbial action on chlorinated solvents" such as those found in household cleansers. Indeed, it is enlightening to note that some waste management facilities go so far as to line their landfills with vinyl to prevent the contamination of the local eco-system and groundwater by their refuse.

The truth of the matter is this: once disposed of, vinyl does not pollute the environment under most/normal circumstances.

Some Green Virtues of Vinyl

The irony of the current castigation of vinyl is that, in many ways, vinyl is better for the environment than building products that are widely touted as Green-preferred. For example, in a 1999 study titled, "Environmental and Economic Impact Analysis - Flooring Materials," the U.S. Commerce Department attempted to establish some kind of yardstick against which various manufacturers' Green product claims could be measured. In preparing their study, the department eventually selected 6 criteria by which to measure a product's overall eco-friendliness:

  • Solid Waste -- the impact of the product upon the waste stream (how much trash resulted from it).
  • Indoor Air Quality -- the impact of the product upon the indoor environment.
  • Nutrifaction (or Eutrophication) -- the impact of the product on the facilitation of unhealthful organisms.
  • Acidification -- the impact of the product on the genesis of acid rain.
  • Global Warming -- the impact of the product on the average ambient temperature of Earth.
  • Resource Depletion -- the impact of the product on the consumption of natural resources, including fossil fuels.

During this study, the Commerce Department compared the impact of the products' manufacturing process, transportation, installation, typical daily use, and disposal -- in other words, the government conducted a lifecycle analysis (LCA) of the products.

The comparison between vinyl flooring and linoleum flooring (generally touted as "the" Green floor) was particularly enlightening (and surprising). On Solid Waste vinyl surfacing was deemed better for the environment overall than linoleum because it lasts longer once installed (especially higher-grade and sheet vinyl surfaces), resulting in less waste over time (for example, 70 percent of all vinyl goes into products that are in good use for 10 years or more).

On Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) vinyl was deemed better for the environment because many types of vinyl flooring emit less volatile organic compounds (VOCs, the central culprit in poor indoor air quality) once installed than linoleum. Indeed, in independent small-chamber environmental testing designed specifically to emulate real-world conditions (expertly acknowledged as the only valid test of products' VOC impact xix ), the vinyl surfaces of some manufacturers (such as Lonseal's LonEco recycled-materials series) was found to emit less VOCs than linoleum and rubber -- averaging the VOC emissions of rubber and one-tenth (or 10 TIMES LOWER) the VOC emissions of linoleum.

On Nutrifaction, Acidification, & Global Warming -- vinyl was also deemed to have less environmental impact than linoleum. Only on Resource Depletion was vinyl a close second to linoleum -- and then only because, as a polymer, vinyl requires approximately 10 percent more fossil fuel consumption than linoleum. However, the fact that on five out of six environmental-impact measures, including the key factor of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), vinyl was deemed Greener than linoleum (the favorite surface of vinyl's critics) should cause all those who are skeptical of the eco-friendliness of vinyl to reconsider their doubt.

Add to this the innovation of some vinyl manufacturers -- such as 50 percent recycled content that meets current LEED standards, ultra-low VOC plasticizers, "dry-erase" wear layers that reduce the need for mopping and the dumping of chemical-laden run-off water into the waste stream -- and the broad-brush villainy with which vinyl has been portrayed looks more and more like a caricature than an accurate portrait of this venerable, high-performance building material.

Although the passion for Green causes and the Green movement is widely shared by architects/designers and industry alike, in some this passion has led to exaggeration in the pursuit of their points and even contravention of the facts in the advocacy of their aims. As a result, the fiery debate over vinyl has strayed from the realm of empiricism and into the dangerous terrain of fanaticism -- dragging too many reasonable and intelligent architects and designers far from the safe ground of factual truth and into the quicksand of hyperbolic rhetoric.

The truth is this: vinyl is NOT bad for the environment -- neither during its current modes of production, nor during its typical use, nor after its disposal. In fact, to the contrary, on the central criteria of solid waste generation and indoor air quality, over its lifecycle vinyl surfacing is better for the environment than alternatives. While these conclusions are perhaps counterintuitive, and though they are bound to stoke the feral passions of some extremists in the Green movement (whose anti-vinyl jihad is breathtaking for its vitriol), the truth is that these deductions have the unassailable benefit of resting upon empirical evidence that, one should hope, all reasonable people will discover to be not only persuasive but enlightening as we all work together to make our world a Greener place.