PVC and Phthalates Explained

What is PVC?

PVC, short for polyvinyl chloride, is one of the world’s most widely produced synthetic plastic polymers. An important thing to note about PVC is that there are two distinct categories–flexible and rigid. Rigid PVC, which is used to make PVC pipes, does not contain phthalates, and does not pose the same health risks as flexible PVC. Flexible PVC is commonly used to make many household items, including children’s toys, flooring, inflatable products, and sometimes even clothing.

What are Phthalates?

Phthalates are a group of chemicals called plasticizers that add flexibility and resilience to products made out of flexible PVC or vinyl plastic. According to the Food and Drug Administration, phthalates can be found in hundreds of products, such as toys, vinyl flooring, detergents, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products. 

Why does it matter?

According to the Eco Center, humans are exposed to PVC and phthalates for their entire life through ingestion, inhalation, and skin exposure. Due to the high chlorine content of PVC, it creates toxic pollution in the form of dioxins, which accumulate in animal fat up through the food chain.

Phthalates are not chemically bound to vinyl and can leach, migrate, or evaporate into indoor air and concentrate in household dust. Building materials and other consumer products containing phthalates can result in exposure through direct contact and use, or indirectly through leaching into other products.

Young children are most at risk of harm from toxic chemicals such as those released by the PVC lifecycle according to the Center for Health and Environmental Justice. Their developing brains, bodies, metabolism, and behaviors make them uniquely vulnerable to even small doses of these chemicals.

While long-term health impacts of PVC and phthalates are still being studied, some have been linked to endocrine disruption and a negative impact on reproduction and development. The EPA has stated that they are “concerned about phthalates because of their toxicity and the evidence of pervasive human and environmental exposure to these chemicals… Phthalate exposures are a potential concern for children’s health.”

In addition to health concerns, there are a number of negative environmental impacts from the creation and use of this material, such as problems in disposing of PVC, which is very difficult to recycle. 

What can you do?

Avoid purchasing products made with PVC and instead opt for natural replacements, such as wood, metal, or organic cotton. Make sure to read the labels of toys and personal care products to avoid any that contain phthalates in the list of chemicals.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine suggests swapping any food containers made with plastic for pyrex or glass and avoiding heating food in plastic containers. Using more sustainable storage options, such as beeswax wraps, avoids potential exposure through plastic and cling wraps.