As a result of a legal agreement reached on May 3, 2022, with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the EPA has nine months to analyze the toxic impact of polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
PVC, also commonly referred to as vinyl, is widely used for many functions, and there are currently 7 billion pounds of the material disposed of in the United States annually, according to a CBD press release.
It is used in children’s clothing, plumbing materials, building materials, electronics, furniture, shoes, luggage, sporting equipment, credit cards, and many other products.
“We hope this is the federal government’s first step toward acknowledging the toxic legacy of PVC, and ultimately leads to the end of its production,” says Emily Jeffers, an attorney at the CBD. “Scientists have been telling us for years that PVC is the most environmentally damaging type of plastic. Yet we discard billions of pounds of PVC every year in the [United States], in much the same way we throw away orange rinds and grass clippings. That doesn’t make sense, and it’s dangerous.”
In 2014, the CBD filed a petition with the EPA under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The 43-page petition requested rulemaking governing the safe treatment, storage, and disposal of PVC and its associated chemical additives.
The petition states that the EPA “must, at a minimum, revise its solid waste management guidelines to reduce the significant threats to human health and the environment arising from the improper disposal of this plastic trash. In addition, the Center asks that EPA initiate rulemaking under [TSCA] to address the serious risks associated with PVC, vinyl chloride and phthalate plasticizers.”
“Improperly discarded PVC constitutes a substantial proportion of ocean litter and poses especially significant threats to human and environmental health. Even before the production of this material began to accelerate in the 1930s, researchers suspected that PVC’s primary building block, vinyl chloride, produced toxic effects in laboratory animals. Although EPA has now acknowledged this substance as a human carcinogen, experts continue to argue that the agency’s risk assessments are inadequate. In addition to vinyl chloride, PVC contains significant concentrations of regulated and unregulated chemical additives, including phthalate plasticizers and heat stabilizers mixed from lead, calcium, barium and cadmium. Recent studies reveal that finished PVC products leach significant concentrations of these compounds into the environment as they deteriorate with age, threatening severe biological consequences.”
On May 19, 2021, the CBD sent EPA Administrator Michael Regan a Notice of Intent (NOI) to sue the Agency “for violating its mandatory duty to take action on the Center’s petition requesting the promulgation of regulations to address the threat of toxic chemicals released from discarded plastic waste” within a reasonable time frame.
The letter cited federal violations of RCRA for ignoring the CBD’s original petition.
A lawsuit was subsequently filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The problem with PVC
PVC’s human health risks include reproductive harm, hormone disruptions, abnormal brain and reproductive development, obesity, insulin resistance, and damage to the liver and other organs.
“It releases toxic chemicals and carcinogens, including dioxin and phthalate plasticizers, into the air, water and food web at every stage of its life cycle,” states the CBD press release.
There is a plethora of available research to support the CBD’s position on the toxicity of PVC. Its petition to the EPA cites more than 125 sources regarding the dangers of PVC, phthalates, and plastic pollution.
Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) is the phthalate traditionally added to PVC plastic production to make the substance more flexible. It is also used in cosmetics and other consumer products. This chemical has been linked to asthma; breast cancer; obesity; attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder; and damage to the kidneys, liver, reproductive system, and lungs. In 2017, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned the use of eight phthalate chemicals in childcare products and children’s toys.
On May 2, 2022, the European Union proposed banning approximately 12,000 toxic chemicals, including PVC plastics.
The study Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities, published in the January 2022 edition of the Environmental Science & Technology journal, concludes that chemical pollution has crossed a “planetary boundary,” the point at which human-made changes to the Earth push it outside the stable environment of the last 10,000 years, reports The Guardian. “Determining whether chemical pollution has crossed a planetary boundary is complex because there is no pre-human baseline, unlike with the climate crisis and the pre-industrial level of CO2 in the atmosphere. There are also a huge number of chemical compounds registered for use – about 350,000 – and only a tiny fraction of these have been assessed for safety. … The researchers said stronger regulation was needed and, in the future, a fixed cap on chemical production and release, in the same way carbon targets aim to end greenhouse gas emissions.”
While PVC production emissions are regulated, disposal of items containing this chemical is not. Plastic items end up in one of four places when people are finished with them: Less than 10% is recycled, about 16% is incinerated, some is littered, and the bulk of it ends up in landfills.
“Over decades or even centuries, much of that littered and landfilled plastic breaks down into tiny particles known as microplastics, which contaminate our food, the air, and water. They also accumulate in our bodies, potentially increasing our risk of chronic inflammation and other ills,” Consumer Reports says. “Experts say … the only way to stem the rising tide of plastic is for companies to make less of it and for recycling programs to be retooled so that more of what we throw away is actually turned into something useful. There’s little to suggest this will happen anytime soon. Plastic production is expected to more than double by 2050, and even if it doesn’t, the plastic trash that people continue to throw away will still have to go somewhere.”
Proposed consent decree
The proposed consent decree, published in the Federal Register on May 4, 2022, requires the EPA to sign a tentative decision on the CBD’s petition to classify PVC as hazardous waste under RCRA by January 23, 2023, and make a final decision by April 12, 2024. Comments on the proposed consent decree can be made at regulations.gov until June 3, 2022, under Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OGC-2022-0406.