New Report Exposes Forced Labor, Toxic Occupational Hazards, and Climate Warming Impacts of Vinyl Flooring Industry

A new article in the investigative journalism outlet, The Intercept, titled Toxic Tiles: How Vinyl Flooring Made With Uyghur Forced Labor Ends Up at Big Box Stores, reveals the human rights abuses and environmental health hazards inherent in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) manufacturing. The article follows the complex PVC manufacturing process and profiles one manufacturing plant called Xinjiang Zhongtai Chemical Plant. This is located in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR or Uyghur Region), a region where experts say the Chinese government has perpetrated a widespread campaign of repression, internment, surveillance, and forced labor.

The article spotlights findings of a new report, Built on Repression: PVC Building Materials’ Reliance on Labor and Environmental Abuses in the Uyghur Region, authored by leading human rights and environmental researchers at Sheffield Hallam University and Material Research, L3C. The report documents the use of forced labor in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) manufacturing facilities in the Uyghur Region,  which has become an epicenter of PVC production in recent years. According to the report, all of the PVC companies in the region have been active participants in “labor transfer” programs which are in actuality programs of forced labor. 

Often signaled out as one of the most toxic plastics, PVC is used in a range of products from credit cards to pipes, and increasingly in vinyl flooring, including in so-called luxury vinyl tile, which is the leading export application for PVC manufactured in China. The article and report build upon findings from CEH’s recent analysis of the climate and toxic chemical footprint  of vinyl flooring: Flooring’s Dirty Climate Secret. CEH’s report provides a carbon accounting of the manufacturing and transportation to the installation site  of vinyl flooring and the first-ever published estimates of the rate of use of notoriously harmful substances such as mercury, PFAS, and asbestos. The toxic substances used in PVC production worldwide  endanger worker health and fenceline communities along the entire global supply chain. 

In the video featured in The Intercept’s article, CEH’s Science Director, Dr. Jimena Díaz Leiva, explains the hidden toxics and climate threats associated with producing PVC, stating “This particular kind of plastic that we’re talking about – PVC – has a really long and complex production process. Not only is it carbon intensive, you need to also use a number of toxic chemicals (mercury, asbestos, or PFAS). We are very concerned about the health risks to workers.”  

Manufacturing methods used by the plants in Xinjiang rely on inputs of coal and neurotoxic mercury and emit climate warming gasses into the atmosphere as well as release hazardous mercury vapors. These plants use an estimated 340 tons of mercury per year, of which at least 9.3 tons are released into the atmosphere, where mercury is well-known to travel long distances and settle into water bodies and soil. Running at full capacity, the plants in this region will release an estimated 49 million tons of climate warming greenhouse gasses. 

CEH’s report documents how PVC produced in the U.S. also poses significant environmental threats, particularly to workers and communities living near manufacturing facilities, many of which are located in low-income communities and communities of color. Many of the health risks associated with PVC are related to the toxic substances and fossil fuels used as inputs in manufacturing PVC, as well as the chemicals that are released if the material is burned in a fire or incinerator. PVC is not recyclable. Yet the vinyl flooring industry has benefited tremendously from misleading marketing efforts presenting it as a safe, affordable option. Some of the floors sold in the U.S. with Uyghur-region PVC are even described by their distributors as “eco-friendly.”

Vinyl flooring’s artificially low price tag and attractive marketing conceals the true costs of these products, much of which are borne by exploited workers who are heavily exposed to toxic chemicals and pollution. 

CEH supports the following actions: 

  • Manufacturers: Adopt full material disclosure and labor transparency throughout the supply chain, including publicly stating the precise origin of PVC and other plastics in their products
  • Purchasers and consumers: Select more sustainable flooring options, including ceramic tile, sustainable hardwood, linoleum, and non-PVC resilient flooring, and avoid other PVC-based products, including siding, blinds, and pipes. If PVC flooring has been purchased since 2017, check with the distributor whether it contains PVC from the Uyghur region and if so, request that it be removed and replaced without charge.
  • Retailers: Immediately halt the sale of products containing PVC made with forced labor, return existing stockpiles to Asia, and phase out the sale of PVC products 
  • Designers and influencers: Stop promoting vinyl flooring as a desirable alternative
  • Institutions including pension funds: Divest from all PVC and fossil fuels companies
  • Policy makers: Prevent the import of materials made with forced labor