[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.
In an effort to mitigate risk and stay ahead of regulation, many toymakers are already moving away from the use of vinyl. Playground manufacture Playworld Systems Inc. has eliminated 99.999 percent of PVCs from their products, and they have a goal to remove the remaining 0.001 percent as soon as alternative supplies are available. In addition, they are awarding more than $1 million in grants to communities that will commit to a PVC-free pledge.
Safer alternatives to PVC already exist in most product categories, and consumers can look for the Cradle to Cradle Certified logo to find products that are completely free of vinyl and leading the way with innovative alternatives. EcoVeil by MechoShade is a fully recyclable thermoplastic olefin (TPO) shadecloth that has considerably less volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions than its vinyl counterpart, particularly when exposed to sunlight and heat. Construction Specialties developed the Acrovyn line of wall protection using a polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG) that is free of all bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs), making it preferable for use in schools and hospitals.
Consumers are demanding products that they can trust to be safe, particularly for their homes and their children. Businesses that are prepared to meet that demand are more likely to stay afloat after the next wave of regulations or economic tsunami washes over — without a vinyl life raft.
Tish Tablan is a project manager at McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) and has focused on enhancing public understanding of sustainability issues for the past eight years. Steve Bolton is a senior consultant at MBDC. He has been working on environmental and sustainability issues for over 15 years, assisting companies, nonprofit organizations and higher education institutions.
MBDC is a global sustainability consulting and product certification firm founded in 1995 by architect William McDonough and chemist Dr. Michael Braungart. MBDC assists clients in implementing the Cradle to Cradle design framework.
Inflatable pool items - CC license by Flickr user Clintus McGintus