It made headlines the world over in February 2023. 

A Norfolk Southern train derailment involving 100,000 gallons of vinyl chloride (VC), the key component used to manufacture polyvinyl chloride (PVC), sent billowing black clouds over East Palestine, Ohio, stretching into Pennsylvania. Reports have emerged of company officials intentionally draining cars full of VC into field ditches and setting the liquid on fire without consulting with the appropriate government officials first, claiming an explosion would have been far worse. 

While critics assert there was not any danger of an explosion, the fire’s effects sickened the town, leading to the evacuation of thousands. 

A month later, seven government officials investigating the derailment on site also fell sick. At the time of this writing, seven months later, residents still welcome donations of bottled water, and area churches raise funds for air purifiers to distribute to neighbors in need.

So the question is: Will East Palestine ever be safe to live in again?

Tragically, East Palestine is just the latest example where a plastic material like PVC—or the chemicals used to manufacture it—has unknowingly poisoned workers or citizens. Now, with the federal government’s commitment of $15 billion to replace lead pipes through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, without providing guidance on the replacement material, PVC could enter the lives of millions of people via home drinking water.

Meanwhile, numerous wildfires around the world send PVC materials in burnt buildings up in flames, creating hazardous conditions for firefighters and victims, too.

There’s no disputing the fact that PVC is a pervasive part of modern-day existence as the third most common plastic in the United States. So, it’s important for everyone to know if PVC is toxic or not. 

In this article, we put the spotlight on PVC’s production, use, and disposal through the lenses of personal and environmental health. At every step, I’ve examined PVC for toxicity. The conclusions should help you decide whether PVC is safe for you and your family.

If you’re wondering about alternatives to PVC, you’ll find non-toxic options below as well.

Is Polyvinyl Chloride Plastic?

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a type of plastic made from petroleum (fossil fuels). It is also called plastic type 3 or simply vinyl for short.

The prefix poly-, meaning many, refers to the multiple repeating units of the monomer (mono-, meaning one), vinyl chloride, which make it up.

CPVC, chlorinated polyvinyl chloride, is polyvinyl chloride with more chlorine atoms within the polymer. More chlorine makes the final product (such as piping) more durable. CPVC can withstand higher temperatures than PVC.   

How is PVC Made?

Although vinyl chloride (VC) is the major chemical in PVC, other substances, such as chlorine gas and ethylene dichloride, are used to make the VC via the traditional method. Both chlorine gas and ethylene dichloride are hazardous substances. Other harmful chemicals may be used during manufacture.

PVC Production

The conventional process to create PVC begins with the petrochemical ethylene. A chemical reaction between ethylene and chlorine forms ethylene dichloride. 

Further chemical reactions convert ethylene dichloride to vinyl chloride. In the process, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and carbon tetrachloride are produced as byproducts—all of which are carcinogenic.

Carbon tetrachloride is a potent greenhouse gas, contributing to the climate crisis. It also destroys the Earth’s protective ozone layer. 

is pvc safe

Chlorine via the Chlorlkali Process

The manufacture of chlorine gas needed to make vinyl chloride from ethylene is riddled with toxic chemicals. Traditional methods use mercury, asbestos, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Mercury is a neurotoxin, and asbestos is carcinogenic. Fortunately, asbestos is being phased out of chlorine production, but mercury and PFAS are not (at least as of right now).

Vinyl Chloride via the Acetylene Route

Today, there is another way to manufacture PVC that doesn’t require mercury to produce the needed chlorine. An alternate route to produce PVC starts with acetylene rather than ethylene. Like ethylene, acetylene is derived from fossil fuels. 

The alternative method uses mercury to speed up the reaction and drive it to completion. Mercury is released as a pollutant from this process along with the same chlorinated contaminants listed above from the traditional method of making vinyl chloride. 

Plasticizers Added to Vinyl chloride

After vinyl chloride is made, other petroleum-derived chemicals are added to VC to give it desirable physical properties such as flexibility. Phthalates are chemicals often added to VC for this purpose. They are often called plasticizers.

Certain phthalates are banned in many countries (including the United States in certain contexts), because they are harmful to human health.


Polyvinyl chloride is ubiquitous in today’s world. You will find it in:

  • Building materials
  • Furniture
  • Office and school supplies
  • Toys 
  • Inflatables (pools, rafts, floats, trampolines, etc.)
  • Tubing (garden hoses, irrigation tubing, medical tubing)
  • Electrical cable coating
  • Sheets (tarps, banners, etc.)
  • Artificial leather (vinyl)
  • Shower curtains
  • Packaging (including food)
  • Can coatings
  • Medical devices and products      
  • Artificial Christmas Trees        

Here, we will focus on two uses of PVC and additional toxics associated with them.

PVC (Toys and Other Consumer Goods)

Almost all PVC products that are flexible contain phthalates. Because they are not chemically attached to the vinyl chloride monomers, they easily slough off through normal wear and tear. Then phthalates enter the air as contaminants, eventually settling out onto dust particles (which we can then inhale).

Babies and young children who suck on bendable toys made out of PVC ingest phthalates while doing so. School kids chewing on PVC pencil erasers will disengage phthalates and swallow them, too.

Certain phthalates are known endocrine disruptors. This means they upset hormonal balance, especially in growth, development, and reproduction. Studies show prenatal exposure can also adversely affect sexual development after birth. There are also observed associations between certain phthalates and neurodevelopment, including impaired cognition, ADHD, autism, and language delay. 

Because of these adverse health consequences, some countries have banned a handful of phthalates in certain products, especially those intended for babies and toddlers. 

The bans are based on toxicity studies of individual phthalates as opposed to the class of chemicals as a whole.

Even small quantities of endocrine disruptors produce large effects. What researchers are discovering is that exposure to multiple endocrine disruptors leads to enhanced negative health outcomes in a cocktail effect. This finding should result in even more stringent regulation concerning the presence of multiple phthalates in consumer products.

is pvc toxic

PVC Pipes

PVC is commonly used in plumbing. Besides chemicals leaching out of the pipes into your drinking water, there are additional reasons to be concerned.

Chemicals from Gasket Seals

Plumbers join large PVC pipes together with a gasket seal made of styrene butadiene rubber. Testing reveals over 15 chemicals, including styrene and methylene chloride, leaching from the gasket. You may remember methylene chloride from the news of deaths caused by this toxic chemical in paint strippers.

To connect small PVC pipes, plumbers use cements that also leach into water. The most concerning substance is tetrahydrofuran, a possible human carcinogen. 


Organotins, containing at least one atom of tin attached to a carbon atom, are used as heat stabilizers for PVC pipe. They took the place of neurotoxins lead and cadmium, phased out in the 1990s. 

The most toxic organotin observed to leach from some PVC pipe is tributyltin, associated with immune suppression, hormone disruption, obesity, neurological disruption, and reproductive system impacts. Although measured levels were small, some experts believe they are inaccurate due to organotins’ ability to stick to lab plasticware. In other words, the actual leachate level would be higher than what was measured. 

Incidentally, tributyltin was used for decades as a biocide in antifouling paints on ships to kill marine organisms attaching to them. Upon discovering how toxic it was, many countries banned it. Yet it could be in your drinking water.


Unbelievably, even rigid PVC pipes may contain phthalates (discussed above). Industry trade groups assert there are none, but several studies detect phthalates in water that has coursed through PVC pipes. Investigators suggest they could be there due to contamination during manufacture or from proprietary additives.

Vinyl Chloride

Lastly, PVC pipes could leach vinyl chloride (discussed below) in small quantities. Piping manufactured before 1976, when a step to remove residual VC was introduced, showed considerably more than recently made PVC. 

However, we may never know how much VC is really in your water. The detection method for vinyl chloride is measured at the point of entry into the water treatment system of your public utility, not at your household tap. So, even if PVC pipes were leaching significant levels of vinyl chloride into your drinking water when it got to your home, it would not be detected.

Additionally, vinyl chloride could be in your drinking water from a public water system that uses chlorine disinfection. VC is a possible byproduct of the disinfection process.

PVC Disposal 

At the end of its useful life, almost all PVC is landfilled or incinerated. Over time, toxic leachate from landfills will enter groundwater. If burned, hazardous chemicals enter the air, soil, and water.

Is PVC Recycled?  

PVC manufacturers like to say that their product is recyclable and recycled. While that may be true, the reality is that roughly 5% of all plastic in the U.S. (40 million tons/year) is recycled.

USEPA said in 2018 that the amount of PVC actually recycled out of the 840,000 tons that made it to solid waste facilities was “negligible.” 

One of the reasons PVC is probably not as recycled as, say, plastic type #1, relates to what it contains:

  • Toxic chemicals used as additives
  • Chlorine

It is prohibitively expensive to build a recycling plant able to separate out the additives and chlorine. If the PVC could be recycled cheaply, it would have to be downcycled anyway. Because virgin plastic is so inexpensive, that’s what most companies demand.

So, most PVC is incinerated. As it’s burned, PVC releases copious amounts of dioxins, the most carcinogenic chemicals ever created, to water, soil, and air.  

Below is a diagram that summarizes this section on PVC from cradle to grave.

Is PVC toxic?
Source: The Perils of PVC Plastic Pipes 

What is Vinyl Chloride?

Repeating units of vinyl chloride (VC) make up polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Practically all vinyl chloride manufactured today is used to make PVC. 

You can be exposed to VC when it leaches into water from PVC pipes. In PVC food packaging, VC can migrate into food. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) regulates the amount of VC in drinking water. In the environment, vinyl chloride moves rapidly in soil and water. It can persist for years in groundwater.

The amount of vinyl chloride you’re exposed to, especially if you live close to a factory making VC, can be higher than the level deemed acceptable by USEPA. So, if you’re trying to avoid toxic chemicals, it’s important to know whether vinyl chloride is safe.

Is Vinyl Chloride Safe?

Vinyl chloride (VC) is not safe. Exposure to VC is linked to liver, brain, and lung cancers. It is also associated with lymphoma and leukemia, other forms of cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared vinyl chloride a human carcinogen in 1974. 

It’s no surprise then, in that same year, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) banned vinyl chloride in aerosols because it is linked to a rare form of liver cancer. Unbelievably, in the past, vinyl chloride was also used as a refrigerant and an inhalational anesthetic.

CPSC had the jurisdiction to ban it in consumer products such as:

  • Paints and finishes
  • Protective and decorative coatings
  • Paint removers
  • Adhesives and solvents

However, they could not regulate it in food (whip cream or oil sprays) or cosmetics (hair spray) since the Food and Drug Administration covers that. Nor could they regulate it in pesticides since that is USEPA’s responsibility.

Fortunately, the USEPA banned aerosol pesticides containing vinyl chloride in 1974. The USFDA also announced in 1974 that hair spray containing vinyl chloride would be considered “adulterated” and warned of regulatory action, but didn’t call it an outright ban.

In 1974, the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) received reports that vinyl chloride residues had migrated from bottles and packaging into vinegar, apple cider, vegetable oil, mineral oil, and meat packaging. These findings came to light after vinyl chloride in liquor bottles was banned by the USFDA in 1973. 

It is unlikely that vinyl chloride is intentionally added to food, cosmetics, or pesticides today, although it could be a contaminant in food packaging or water.

Alternatives to PVC

Fortunately, there are a growing number of alternatives to PVC for many types of consumer products. Here are a few resources on PVC-free goods to get you started.

FAQs about PVC

You may still have questions about PVC that you didn’t find answers to in this article. Here are a few.

Is PVC safe?

PVC is not safe, although the plastics industry and the USEPA state it is. It may contain residues of vinyl chloride monomer, which is a known carcinogen. Endocrine-disrupting phthalates are common plasticizers in all non-rigid PVC. They have also been detected in rigid PVC pipes. In a recent petition to classify discarded PVC as hazardous, USEPA has declined to do so.

Does PVC cause cancer?

Although PVC is not considered a carcinogen, the vinyl chloride (VC) which makes it up is a known cancer-causing agent. There may be residual levels of VC from manufacturing in the final PVC product. Household PVC pipes may leach vinyl chloride into drinking water. 

Is PVC toxic to humans?

If a sample of PVC contained no residual vinyl chloride (VC) and no toxic additives—verified by third-party testing—you could call it non-toxic during its useful life. However, in the real world, this is not the case. 

There may be low levels of carcinogenic VC in the final PVC product making it toxic. A cocktail of endocrine disrupting phthalates added to all flexible PVC and detected at low levels in some rigid PVC products makes PVC toxic to humans as well.

There may be other additives such as organotins which make PVC toxic. Manufacturers aren’t required to list all substances added to their PVC, so there could be other toxins involved that you’d never know about.

Finally, PVC is toxic when incinerated, releasing carcinogenic dioxins. 

Is PVC toxic to touch?

If a piece of PVC was uncontaminated by vinyl chloride (VC) and contained no toxic additives—verified by third-party testing—it would not be toxic to touch during its useful life. So, if you touched it by accident, you’d be okay. However, in the real world, PVC isn’t like that. 

There may be a small amount of vinyl chloride in the PVC remaining from the manufacturing process. VC can be absorbed through the skin. In this sense, touching PVC can be toxic.

Phthalate plasticizers, not permanently attached to VC monomers, easily rub off when touching a PVC product. Skin absorption of these toxic endocrine disruptors is possible.

Lastly, if you touch a charred piece of PVC after a house fire or backyard burning, carcinogenic dioxins can be absorbed via the dermal route. 

Key Takeaways on PVC

PVC is called the “poison plastic” for a reason. It is toxic from start to finish. It is the worst plastic type of all for health and environmental reasons.

PVC is a polymer made of repeating units of vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. The production of chlorine in the traditional method of manufacturing PVC releases carbon tetrachloride, a potent greenhouse gas also a destroyer of the ozone layer which protects you from the sun’s harmful UV radiation.

Phthalates are added to PVC to make it flexible. Some phthalates are banned in many countries, including the U.S., because they are known endocrine disruptors and linked to cancer.

Very little, if any, PVC is properly recycled. When incinerated, it produces cancer-causing dioxins. It also forms phosgene when burned, a war-time gas that is fatal when inhaled.

Despite all the levels of toxicity in PVC, it is commonly used in a wide variety of products, from building materials to water pipes to rubber duckies.

About Jeanne

Jeanne Yacoubou, MS is an experienced researcher and writer passionate about all things environmental. She's written extensively on renewable energy, sustainability, the environmental impacts of diet, and toxic chemicals in food, water, air, and consumer products. When she’s not tending her organic garden or hanging out with her three teens, Jeanne is blogging about the latest scientific reports on our climate crisis. Jeanne holds master’s degrees in chemistry, ethics, and education. In between her graduate work, Jeanne served as a high school science teacher in Benin, West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer for over three years.

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