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The toxic face of PVC manufacturing exposed

The building design sector should be careful when selecting building and furnishing materials containing PVC, with a new report finding mercury, asbestos, PFAS chemicals and other hazardous substances in the footprint of some chlorine-based materials.

The Healthy Building Network undertook research into manufacturing facilities in the Americas, Europe and Africa, examining the supply chain of products including plastic pipes, roofing, flooring, adhesives, building membranes and claddings.

Chlorine, which itself highly toxic, is the key feedstock for many of these products and is the major ingredient of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.

HBNsaid it wanted to assist building product manufacturers to reduce pollution in their supply chains.

“This report is a prerequisite to understanding the origins and lifecycle impacts of high-volume building materials such as polyvinyl chloride, and others including polyurethane and epoxies,” HBN research director and report lead author Jim Vallettesaid.

“When we know better, we can do better to reduce the environmental and health impacts of this material through the supply chain.”

The research examined 86 of the region’s largest chlor-alkali facilities and the connection they have to 56 PVC resin plants in the Americas, Europe and Africa.

Demand from manufacturers of building and construction products now drives the production of chlorine, Mr Vallette said.

The report identifies three key risks from chlorine production. First, the chemical is inherently highly toxic. The same chlorine gas used to manufacture plastics such as PVC is also used in chemical weapons.

Chlorine production also releases highly toxic pollutants into the environment. Older processes release asbestos and mercury, while more modern processes use a coating of toxic PFAS chemicals in producing chlorine gas, and these chemicals can also be released in factory pollution.

When chlorine is combined with carbon-based materials, some of the world’s worst-ever toxins are created, as the strong bonds created between highly reactive chlorine and stable carbon molecules do not easily breakdown naturally.

Legacy contaminants and problematic substances arising from chlorine-carbon combinations have included  Agent Orange, CFCs, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and highly toxic solvents such as methylene chloride.

The process of creating chlorine gas is also highly energy intensive.

Among other disturbing findings, the chlor-alkali industry in the US is actually the only industry still openly using asbestos, with 11 plants legally importing 480 tonnes of the hazardous material on average a year. There are only two sources now available for the asbestos – Brazil, which continues to export it despite having a ban in place on its production, and Russia.

The Russian Uralasbest mine will soon become the only source of asbestos available once Brazil runs out of stock, HBN said.

Globally, only three nations allow the “indefinite” use of asbestos and mercury for chlorine production – Russia, the US and Germany.

German-based companies BASF and DowDuPont are yet to announce plans to phase out using mercury or asbestos at their German plants.

The world’s lowest cost region for production of chlorine for industrial purposes is the US Gulf Coast, where nine facilities use the outdated asbestos-based technology to produce chlorine through the fractionisation of sea water.

Five of the six largest emitters of toxic dioxins are also in this region, and one plant was responsible for chronic releases of PVC pellets into the watershed of the Gulf of Mexico.

The industry is also contributing to global warming. The report found that chlor-alkali facilities were a major source of carbon tetrachloride. Levels of the gas, which is also an ozone-depleting substance, have been rising.

This phase one report of HBN’s Chlorine and Building Materials project is due to be followed by a phase two report examining manufacturing in the Asian region.

  • Download the phase one report here

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