The PVC debate

An overview of the PVC debate


The chemistry of PVC has been understood since the end of the 19th century. The plastic was first commercially produced in Europe in the 1930s and in the past 70 years it has undergone continuous development and improvement. PVC's adaptability comes from its molecular structure. This makes possible many different blends of ingredients providing a range of properties, enabling the PVC industry to respond to the commercial and technical needs of many market sectors. This adaptability also allows the industry to respond to environmental requirements.

Like many other materials, the manufacture of PVC involves the use of potentially hazardous chemicals. Such manufacturing methods are very closely regulated.Today, PVC is probably the world’s most researched plastic/polymer. Extremely strict guidelines govern PVC manufacture and workers’ exposure.

Vinyl chloride monomer (VCM)

The most significant health and safety issue in the manufacture of PVC was the exposure of plant operators to vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) in the working atmosphere.

This was found to increase the risk of angiosarcoma of the liver - a rare cancer of the blood vessels of the liver - amongst production workers exposed for long periods to high concentrations of VCM. After these problems were identified by industry in the 1970s, immediate measures were taken and occupational exposure was reduced 1,000-fold. No occurrence of ASL has been found since then for plant workers whose employment started after the changes were made. In order to help physicians in the diagnosis of ASL, a guide for histopathologists was issued by a group of leading experts, see below.

Relevant document:

Another safety issue is the risk of dust explosion, which exists in plants handling combustible powders like plastics, coal or such like. ECVM issued guidelines how to apply relevant EU regulations:

PVC products and the additives used to give the material various properties, that is stabilisers used to help process PVC into long-life products, and plasticisers used to make flexible PVC. Substantial volume of research and over 60 years of experience, support the fact that PVC can be safely used even in the most sensitive of applications (such as medical devices). PVC is safe in use. Formulations are designed to meet all applicable regulations and standards, in particular in critical health care and food contact applications.

PVC materials or products have excellent fire performance properties due to the presence of chlorine.

  • April 2001, Australia: Conclusions on some of the scientific issues concerning the use of PVC products. This study analyses the issues identified in the CSIRO’ June 1998 report. The balance of available evidence indicates that PVC in its building and construction applications has no more effect on the environment than alternatives.
  • June 1999, Germany: UBA report reveals differentiated pictures depending on type of application for environmental performances of PVC applications.
  • The German environment agency UBA has developed a model to anticipate substance related environmental protection in a sustainable development and eco-efficiency perspective. The model was exemplified and verified with PVC taken as an example.
Hazards associated with PVC at the end-of-life stage

PVC is one of the most recyclable of polymers but can be disposed of, if required, quite safely. Recycling as well as disposal of PVC is safe. PVC can be mechanically or feedstock recycled or handled in waste-to-energy facilities.

Relevant documents: