Opinion: It’s time for the EPA to ban vinyl chloride


Published: 10-03-2023 6:00 AM

Ann Podlipny lives in Chester.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon created the EPA in order to protect human health and the environment. In 1972, his administration passed the Clean Water Act. In 1974, the toxic chemical vinyl chloride was designated a human carcinogen.

This highly toxic compound is still widely used in American products despite the federal government’s acknowledgment that it causes cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers it a Group I carcinogen to which there is no safe level of exposure. Vinyl chloride is known to cause liver cancer and is associated with lymphoma, leukemia and cancers of the brain and lungs.

Where is vinyl chloride found? Almost everywhere. As a chemical used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) it is found in PVC pipes (that carry our drinking water) as well as in vinyl siding, windows and flooring, packaging, furniture and car parts, children’s toys, pet toys, shower curtains, credit cards, gift cards and many other consumer goods.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has acknowledged the harmful effects of vinyl chloride by banning its use in cosmetics, drugs and air propellants. Yet, since regulatory protection has been lax it still appears in toys your child plays with including the infamous rubber ducky in the bathtub. It’s safe to say that children touch it every day.

In fact, we are all in harm’s way when vinyl chloride or PVC plastic burn and dioxins are released. Dioxins are persistent organic pollutants, a class of toxic chemicals that harm human health and the environment and can be transported by wind and water. People are at risk of inhalation and the environment at risk of contamination. These long-lasting chemicals are stored in body fat, moving from species to species, becoming more concentrated and dangerous as they make their way up the food chain.

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PVC is considered a dire health risk to firefighters. Since 2002, two out of three have died in the line of duty from exposure. When vinyl chloride burns in train derailments as in the 2023 East Palestine, Ohio disaster it threatens the long-term health of residents and first responders alike.

Unless lawmakers adopt new plastics reduction laws, plastic production is on track to double over the next twenty years. For every use of PVC plastic, there is a safer, non-plastic alternative. Many materials that don’t carry a toxicity risk to children can be used to make toys. PVC water pipes can be replaced with stainless steel or recycled copper substitutes to ensure the safety of the drinking water essential to life.

It’s been almost fifty years since the federal government confirmed that vinyl chloride is cancer-causing. Today, the Break Free From Plastics Pollution Act of 2021-2022 sponsored by Jeff Merkley (OR) and Alan Lowenthal (CA) represents the most comprehensive set of policy solutions to the plastic pollution crisis ever introduced in Congress. In the upcoming elections, it is vitally important we support candidates who believe in reducing our over-dependence on the plastics industry.

Back in the 1960s, Tom Lehrer wrote a satirical song with serious intent entitled “Pollution, Pollution” to forewarn us of our current crisis:

“If you visit American city,You will find it very pretty. Just two things of which you must beware, Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.”

“Lots of things that you can drink, but stay away from the kitchen sink. Just go out for a breath of air, and you’ll be ready for Medicare.”

These lyrics foreshadow today’s reality. Our environment, unlike vinyl chloride, is not replaceable. Let’s make every effort to eradicate one and preserve the other.