Polyvinyl Chloride is a polymer made from chlorine and ethylene. Although it is a hard plastic, it can be softened by adding chemicals called plasticizers. This pliant plastic, widely used in packaging, is familiar to many of us by its dreadful off-gassing smell. Think cheap plastic shower curtain liner. Polyvinyl chloride is in fact quite toxic. Besides use in packaging, it is the type of plastic used in hard white plumbing pipes and in some types of house siding, outdoor furniture, billboards, flooring and carpet backing.
Surprisingly enough, plasticized PVC is still widely used in the medical industry for intravenous lines and storage of blood and other fluids for transmission. Remember the cyclist Alberto Contador, nailed last year for blood-doping? The tip-off was the plasticizers in his blood.
#3 plastic is still used commercially in film wrap for foods. This is surprising because it readily leaches phthalates (plasticizers), which are recognized endocrine-disruptors, into foods. Because of the leaching problem, it has mostly been phased out for residential use and replaced by low density polyethylene (LDPE #4) plastic wrap.
Recommendation: avoid PVC. To learn more, check out the simultaneously humorous and alarming documentary, “Blue Vinyl,” released in 2002. Also see Environmental Working Group’s page on how to avoid hormone-disrupting chemicals.
PVC should be handled and disposed of as hazardous waste. It should not be landfilled or incinerated, and is generally not recycled. The more you learn about vinyl, the more you question whether the many uses we’ve found for it are worth the ongoing risks we run by using it as extensively as we do.