CURWOOD: It was the culprit in a recent PBS investigative report by Bill Moyers. Now polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, is the target of a new campaign in the state of Maine. The 39-member Maine Hospital Association has agreed to phase out PVC use, and state lawmakers are now considering a bill to educate consumers about the dangers of burning PVC, to reduce its toxic byproduct dioxin. From Maine Public Radio, Susan Chisholm reports.
CHISHOLM: In a profession whose creed is "First, do no harm," medicine has a long way to go when it comes to protecting the environment. Thermometers, defibrillators, blood pressure devices, batteries, and vaccines contain the heavy metal mercury, which, when incinerated, can contaminate lakes and rivers in minute amounts, prompting fish consumption advisories because of its potential damage to the central nervous system. So, imagine the delight of many environmentalists when Scott Bullock of the Maine Hospital Association announced last month that all 39 of his member hospitals would phase out the use of products containing mercury and polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.
BULLOCK: Hospitals exist today to build healthier communities. We view eliminating mercury and other hazardous materials from our hospitals as a logical extension of this mission.
CHISHOLM: Other hospitals around the United States have taken similar steps to reduce mercury, but this is one of the first such commitments around PVC. Hospitals rely on PVC for about 25 percent of their medical products, including IV bags, catheters, and tubing. The Vinyl Institute calls PVC "one of the most successful modern synthetic materials that makes excellent use of scarce resources." Bill Walsh of the Healthy Buildings Network calls it something else.
WALSH: PVC is the worst plastic for the environment by a long shot. No other plastic contains substantial amounts of chlorine. Once chlorine is in the plastic, it triggers a whole set of consequences, the first of which is when this plastic burns it becomes what we estimate is the largest material source of dioxin into the global environment.
CHISHOLM: A known carcinogen, dioxin is also a suspected cause of infertility, hormone disruption, and developmental disabilities in children. In Maine, the Department of Environmental Protection estimates that waste burning is responsible for about half of the dioxin released in the state. The sources include some 8,500 backyard burn barrels, solid waste, and medical waste incinerators. When the PVC wastes are burned, dioxin is released into the environment. It then works its way up the food chain and is eventually stored in body fat. Mike Belliveau is the director of toxics and pollution prevention for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
BELLIVEAU: There have been studies done in New York state and elsewhere that show that the higher the PVC content of the waste that's burned in backyard burn barrels, the higher the dioxin emissions.
CHISHOLM: But that's where the science parts company quickly. Doctor William Carroll works for Occidental Chemical Corporation and represents the Vinyl Institute. He says open burning, in general, is a bad disposal method, since just about anything burned in such a fashion will create dioxin. The trick, he says, is good combustion, like the type found in modern waste incinerators. In addition, Carroll points to a study by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers that found little correlation between the presence of PVC and the emission of dioxin from incinerators.
CARROLL: What was found was that in about ten percent of the cases, I mean, if you had more chlorine in the feed you would get more dioxin. In about ten percent of the cases, if you had more chlorine in the feed you would get less dioxin. And in about 80 percent of the cases there was no effect on the amount of dioxin coming out of the incinerator with the amount of chlorine going in.
CHISHOLM: Critics, including Dr. Joseph Thornton, author of "Pandora's Poison: Chlorine and Health in a New Environmental Strategy," say the ASME study is scientifically flawed and was originated and funded primarily by the Vinyl Institute. Thornton, along with the Natural Resources Council of Maine and other environmental groups, support a bill that would encourage landfilling of PVC waste in Maine rather than burning it. This comes at a crucial time, says Bill Walsh of the Healthy Buildings Network, since vinyl is rapidly displacing many older building materials whose projected lifespan is coming to an end. The measure also calls for a consumer education campaign about the dangers of burning vinyl, encourages Maine's state government to purchase PVC-free products, and to study ways to separate and dispose of vinyl over the long term. But Steve Rosario of the American Plastics Council says it would be economically unwise for Maine to try to regulate PVC out of use.
ROSARIO: There is a plastics industry based here in Maine, and there are about 60 companies that actually make plastic products. We have one or two that make PVC products. They employ over 6,000 people. And when you look at the businesses, they've had sales of about 700 million, which is a growth from 1996 of 500 million.
CHISHOLM: If the Maine legislature passes the PVC legislation, it will join cities like Berkeley and Oakland, California, and Toronto, Canada, where use of PVC is being discouraged or prohibited from incineration. A legislative committee is expected to take up the bill later this month. For Living on Earth, I'm Susan Chisholm in Augusta, Maine.
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