Press Releases

New Report on PVC and Plastics Calls Out Industry’s ‘Hubris’

Contact: Emily DiFrisco,

The Center for Environmental Health’s Paper Looks at New Research and the Volatility of PVC and Plastics in Update to Landmark Report

OAKLAND, CA – Tackling the global issue of the overwhelming volume of plastic waste and the adverse health impacts from plastic pipes in water systems, the Center for Environmental Health released an update to its landmark report into Polyvinyl chloride, or PVCs, a dangerous and volatile compound. This important update, entitled, “PVC and Infrastructure: An Update on the Emerging Threat to Ecological and Human Health” comes in the wake of a dangerous train derailment in eastern Ohio in which five rail cars carrying at least 177,000 pounds of vinyl chloride, a primary and toxic feedstock for PVC, that spilled into the environment and burned over a number of days. This spill provided an all too painful reminder of the danger that plastics pose in our daily lives.

Read the new report on PVC and infrastructure.

“The plastics industry is in a fight for survival, and that kind of fight makes people do desperate things,” the report states. “While we understand the need for using plastic materials in health care and certain other industries. But the prevalence of plastic our drinking water systems is something that can and should be avoided.”

The updated report looks at new research from Purdue University’s Prof. Andrew J. Whelton that shows a “definitive link between the thermal degradation of plastic pipes and components (during wildfires in particular) and the volatile organic chemicals later found to have contaminated drinking water.” Prof. Whelton and his research team have become widely respected for their work, and CEH is pleased to highlight these important studies.

One of the most egregious examples of the dangers of plastic pipes and drinking water contamination after wildfire is the town of Paradise, CA, which was destroyed in the 2018 Camp Fire. After residents made their way back to try and rebuild, they began noticing a foul odor coming from their water. Investigations eventually revealed that the entire drinking water system was contaminated with high levels of benzene, a volatile and poisonous compound. Paradise, CA used PVC-plastic pipes in its distribution system and, despite being buried underground, were found to have melted and degraded due to the intense heat of the wildfire.

A second water system – the San Lorenzo Valley Water System – suffered an estimated $11 million in damage after above-ground plastic pipes crumbled to ash after another wildfire. The CEH report urges states prone to wildfires to require utilities in areas likely to suffer catastrophic blazes to analyze the lines used in drinking water systems for the prevalence of plastic pipes and require them to conduct feasibility studies of replacing plastic pipes with more resilient materials that will not melt when burned.

“2023 may be a breakthrough year in assembling previously disparate efforts to stave of the unfolding planetary plastics crisis” the report states—building on the Beyond Plastics consortium report “The Perils of PVC Pipes”. “At a minimum there are clear pathways to begin curtailing plastic use in many sectors—from piping to critical infrastructure; and advance a robust national effort to ultimately end our use and dependence on plastics. … Melting plastic pipes in water systems threaten health and safety both during and after the wildfire event.”

In recognition of the massive, global threat presented by plastics, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee has begun a two-year process to develop a legally binding treaty that may end plastic pollution in our oceans and other critical waterways. This work is one of the most comprehensive and overarching attempts to address the 6.3 billion tons of planetary plastic waste, including the 8-12 million tons of plastic leaking into the marine environment each year, the report noted. If the INC process succeeds, it potentially will play a critical role in abating plastic pollution, which is expected to more than triple by 2050.

The Center for Environmental Health is one of more than 550 organizations that signed a Presidential Plastics Action Plan that provides eight executive actions President Biden could take to start solving the plastic pollutions crisis. The list of actions includes:

  • Use the purchasing power of the federal government to eliminate single-use plastic items and replace them with reusable products;
  • Suspend and deny permits for new or expanded plastic production facilities, associated infrastructure projects, and exports;
  • And stop subsidizing plastic producers.

In addition to those steps, CEH calls on the federal and state governments to take swift and immediate action to curtail the use and manufacturing of more plastic. More actions suggested in the report include:

  • Prohibiting the use of plastic water pipes in general and especially in areas prone to wildfires given the known and unknown risks of plastic water pipes.
  • Investigating the link between melted plastic pipes and benzene poisoning through the US Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Prohibiting single-use plastics in public buildings.
  • And requiring state-level environmental protection agencies to look at listing plastic as a toxic substance to their registries.

The report also looks the plastics industry’s efforts to rebrand itself as an environmental champion have proven wanting at best and a demonstrable failure in the worst cases. PBS’ “Frontline” teamed up with National Public Radio to produce a scathing look at the plastics industry’s decades-long deception over recycling. Industry insiders and former plastics executives talked about the recycling initiatives that companies promoted.

However, those efforts were just a shady effort to make people feel better about using products in which no more than 10 percent ever get recycled, the report noted. The industry’s dirty secret, which it started in an attempt to make people feel better about buying more plastic, is out. “There was never an enthusiastic belief that recycling was ultimately going to work in a significant way,” Lew Freeman, former vice president of Government Affairs for the Society of the Plastics Industry, told “Frontline.”

The broadcast noted similarities between plastics’ campaign and that of the tobacco industry, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars on studies and reports to hide the deadly effects of their products.

Policymakers must consider these recent incidents, as captured in the new paper, as a reason to take immediate action to address the increased exposure to toxic materials in our daily lives.