Blue Vinyl

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Blue Vinyl
A film by Judith Helfand
and Daniel B. Gold


Hotline, Summer 2002

by Suzanne Seppi, GASP Executive Director

(This film was recently shown on HBO and on June 27 at CCI Center during an evening sponsored by GASP.)

A lively crowd was on hand recently for the rescreening of Blue Vinyl. GASP provided the crowd and the popcorn while Bill Smedley of Greenwatch came to Pittsburgh with the video and the details of the Blue Vinyl story. To complete the evening he handed out mardi-gras beads with Blue Vinyl medallions, which actually came from the siding that Judith convinced her parents to remove from their home, as documented in the film. The Blue Vinyl film was quoted in the Los Angeles Times by Kenneth Turan as “that rare muckraking film with a sense of humor.” The movie was indeed fun but the message was serious, actually deadly serious.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) has high environmental and human health costs. From production to disposal, PVC emits toxic compounds. Manufacturing the building block ingredients of PVC creates by-products of dioxin and other persistent pollutants that contaminate air, water and land, presenting both acute and chronic health hazards. During use, PVC products can leach toxic additives such as phthalates. This came to light recently, especially as it relates to children’s plastic toys, some of which contain PVC. As with many used products, when PVC reaches the end of its useful life, it may be dumped in a landfill where it leaches possible toxic additives, or it may be incinerated, a process which releases dioxin and heavy metals into the air. When PVC burns in accidental fires or even in backyard burn barrels, hydrogen chloride gas and dioxin are formed. Despite this knowledge, vinyl production is on the rise.

Dioxin is the name given to a group of persistent, very toxic chemicals. It has been classified as a known human carcinogen by the EPA, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the National Toxicology Program. Other health effects attributed to dioxin exposure include attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, weakened immune systems, infertility, and birth defects. “The most recent draft of the EPA’s health assessment document makes it clear that current dioxin exposure of the American public as measured by the total body burden is at or near levels associated with adverse impacts on human health including enzyme induction, immune system changes, developmental milestones, glucose intolerance (diabetes), and changes in hormone levels,” stated Stephen Lester, Science Director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in recent testimony.1 He added, “This average body level has also been linked to alterations in neurobehavioral development in children.”

People are exposed to dioxin primarily through the food supply. It is bioaccumulated in animals; for example, it may be transferred through the food chain from atmospheric fallout on a grassy field to concentrate in the fat of a cow and its milk and then be passed on to humans. Therefore, eating dairy products, meat and eggs, as well as fish (those high on the food chain, such as swordfish), often transmits the bulk of dioxin to humans. Dioxin’s half-life in the body is, on average, seven years.

This chemical is so toxic that the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) requires companies to report their emissions if they exceed 0.1 gram. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 99,814 grams (about 1,100 grams TEQ2) of dioxin were released into the environment by chemical manufacturing and processing facilities in 2000. One gram TEQ of dioxin is enough to exceed the acceptable daily intake for more than 40 million people for one year.3 In Allegheny County, according to TRI, 106.25 grams of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds were released in 2000.

The good news is there are replacement products for many current vinyl uses. PVC was completely avoided in the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The multi-use arena had no PVC in the seating, cabling, floor coverings, wall finishes or plumbing. As was mentioned in Blue Vinyl, there are many alternatives to vinyl siding on the market, including solid wood (new and reclaimed from previous use), plywood, strand board, wood-resin composites, stucco, fibre cement and masonite.

With vinyl and other products, such as the massive number of obsolete computers accumulating around the world, we need to look at the whole lifecycle impact of a product to judge whether this is a product we should purchase, whether there are less toxic choices, and whether we need better regulations and responsibility from companies to change or minimize risk.

The Stop Dioxin Exposure Campaign is a nationwide campaign by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice focused on eliminating all sources of dioxin discharge. The campaign works to get communities involved in bringing suggestions and resolutions for change to their local or state governments by, for example, proposing a ban on open burning or prohibiting the sale or distribution of PVC products used as disposable containers and other packaging. Monica Rohde, Coordinator of the Stop Dioxin Exposure Campaign, said, “The EPA has been studying the sources and health effects of dioxin for nearly 20 years…. It is time to release the Dioxin Reassessment and shift the Administration’s focus from research to actually implementing policies that will protect the American public from future dioxin exposure.”

For more suggestions on how you can make a difference, call GASP at (412) 441-6650. Information about Blue Vinyl can be found at www.bluevinyl.org. Information about the community education and consumer organizing campaign tied to this documentary can be found at www.myhouseisyourhouse.org.

GASP has a copy of the Blue Vinyl video available for viewing. If you’re interested in seeing it, call (412) 441-6650 to make arrangements.

1. Stephen U. Lester, Science Director, Center for Health, Environment and Justice, Presentation Before the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine National Research Council Committee on the Implications of Dioxin in the Food Supply February 19, 2002.

2. Some dioxins are more toxic than others. To account for the differences, a technique called TEQ (toxic equivalents) determines a baseline toxicity value based on the most potent form of dioxin, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). 1,100 grams TEQ means that all of the dioxin released had a total toxicity equal to the toxicity of 1,100 grams of TCDD.

3. Center for Health, Environment and Justice, EPA Data Shows That Dioxin is Being Emitted Into the Environment at Unsafe Levels, www.chej.org

Thanks to Conservation Consultants, Inc. for the free use of their facility for the Blue Vinyl screening.