The true cost of vinyl

A Home and Garden letter

For many of us, the annual "Home & Garden Show" at the Minneapolis Convention Center was like a ray of sunshine that helped to break up our winter doldrums, a fantasy-land of home improvement that let us dream about makeovers for our homes.

But all too often, a walk through the aisles of the Home & Garden Show is like a walk through Cancer Alley. Many of the products promoted at this and other home-improvement conventions are very toxic to produce, use and/or discard.

Vinyl is certainly the most prominent of these poison products. It's everywhere -- vinyl siding, vinyl floor coverings and wall coverings, PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipes for plumbing; vinyl-coated wiring and shelving. And it's cheap -- if you're not counting the environmental and public health impacts of the product.

Polyvinyl chloride, or "vinyl," is 57 percent chlorine. The presence of all this chlorine means that when vinyl is produced, some of those chlorine molecules go off to form dioxins. (Readers of a certain age will remember that the communities of Love Canal, New York and Times Beach, Missouri were evacuated because of dioxin contamination.)

Dioxin is arguably the most toxic chemical ever produced. It is a known carcinogen that has also been linked to birth defects, infertility, learning disabilities, immune-system suppression and other health effects most of us would prefer to avoid.

Vinyl also contains a number of other nasty chemicals. Because it is very brittle on its own, additives and stabilizers and plasticizers are added, depending on the "widget" being made. Some of these chemicals include lead and cadmium and plasticizers called phthalates. We know that even tiny amounts of lead can cause neurological damage in children; cadmium can cause lung damage and kidney disease; and phthalates are under growing scientific scrutiny because of concerns about potential hormone disruption and other effects.

"But we don't make vinyl in Minnesota," you say. True, but we sure do use a lot of it, as do most Americans. And we throw an awful lot of it away. In Minneapolis, that means that if we throw that old shower curtain or some of that leftover pipe in the garbage, it will go to the incinerator. There, burning the PVC will create more dioxin, as well as releasing any heavy-metal additives into the atmosphere. Not a good thing. The number and variety of additives in PVC products makes them difficult and very expensive to recycle.

So you went to the Home & Garden Show … Hopefully, you did what I usually do - you wandered wistfully through the aisles, collecting brochures and thinking "We could…" or "Wouldn't this be nice?" but you didn't' actually buy anything.

Now that the weather is nicer but the economy isn't, please consider these issues when you are faced with those brochures and mailings and sales calls promising "maintenance-free" vinyl siding, windows, flooring, etc.

You can arm yourself with good information -- start by visiting the Healthy Building Network website at www.healthybuilding.net. You can also look for products made from alternative materials, since cost-effective alternatives are available for nearly all uses of vinyl in construction and remodeling materials. By all means, ask questions of the sales reps -- many of them just sell the stuff and have not thought about the long-term effects of their product on people or the environment.

Just add a couple of new columns to your personal balance sheet when calculating the cost of any materials you buy or make your dream home: 1) my health/my family's health; and 2) the health of the environment. It's tough to put price tags on those things and that makes vinyl products far less affordable.

-- Jackie Hunt Christensen, Kingfield resident and co-director of the food and health program at the Institute For Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2105 1st Ave. S., www.iatp.org.

Sources include the United States

Environmental Protection Agency, the Government Accounting Office, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the National Toxicology Program -- Center for Risks to Human Reproduction.