Deflating the Dangers of Vinyl With Greener Chemicals

[Editor's Note: This is part of a series of blog posts from McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), the Cradle to Cradle consulting firm, about making products and processes that are safe, healthy and sustainable.]

Anywhere you go to cool off this summer you will likely find a sea of vinyl accessories, including inflatable tubes, rafts, arm floats and beach balls. These hot-selling hot-weather items are intended to keep children safe and happy in the water, but they are not made of the safest materials for human and environmental health.

Vinyl (also known as polyvinyl chloride or PVC) is a ubiquitous plastic that is also found in shower curtains, flooring, plumbing, electrical wiring and exterior siding because of its resistance to moisture, versatility and affordability. This plastic surrounds us in our homes, offices and communities, yet it is a source of health concerns throughout its lifecycle.

Vinyl chloride, a building block of PVC, is a known human carcinogen. When vinyl is either manufactured or incinerated, it releases dioxins, a class of chlorinated organic chemicals that are often carcinogenic, endocrine disrupting and toxic to the reproductive system. Both dioxins and PVC are problematic substances that persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in animal tissue.

In addition, PVC often contains toxic additives such as phthalates, lead and cadmium that are not bound to the plastic and can therefore leach out. Using vinyl for inflatable summer toys is of particular concern because heat accelerates the release of these chemical additives, and children are more at risk from exposure due to their developing organs and smaller body mass.

The state of California is taking steps to mitigate childhood exposure to toxic chemicals. Last week, California Attorney General Jerry Brown filed suit against bounce house companies because of unsafe levels of lead found in the vinyl used in their products. The levels ranged from 5,000-29,000 parts per million, well above the federal limit of 90-300 parts per million.