The Satya Interview with Michael Schade
Sam Suds. Courtesy of CHEJ.org
Each year over 14 billion pounds of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are produced
in the U.S. The hidden costs of this commonly used plastic damages our
air, soil, water and health.
Michael Schade, of the Center for Health, Environment
and Justice, coordinates a national campaign to phase out PVC. The
campaign focuses on preventing harm
by swaying decision-makers from producing, using and disposing of PVC consumer
products and packaging. It also supports communities hardest hit by the environmental
injustices caused by the PVC industry. In the past two years, the campaign
has successfully moved major companies away from this unnecessary toxic
towards safer, healthier alternatives. Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Wal-Mart
and Crabtree & Evelyn have all committed to phase out their use of PVC in
packaging. The campaign’s current focus is Target.
Kymberlie Adams Matthews had the opportunity to get the latest from the PVC crusader
himself, Michael Schade.
What common products are made using PVC?
While the vast majority of PVC in the U.S. is used in the construction industry—building
materials such as piping, siding, flooring, roofing—we’ve focused
our campaign on common consumer products such as toys, baby products, packaging,
food wrap, clothing, etc., because they are products people are most familiar
with. In addition, these short-lived, consumer products account for more than
70 percent of PVC disposed of as solid waste, ending up in dioxin-forming incinerators
and leaking landfills.
What impact does PVC have on human health?
Chemicals released during PVC’s lifecycle can cause cancer, endocrine disruption,
endometriosis, neurological damage, birth defects and impaired child development,
reproductive and immune system damage, and more. These chemicals, including mercury,
dioxins and phthalates, aren’t just released into the air, they are entering
Do you know that new shower curtain smell? That’s actually the smell of
toxic chemicals off-gassing. The EPA did a study of vinyl shower curtains and
found that one new shower curtain can lead to elevated levels of dangerous toxins
in your home for over one month! PVC children’s toys and baby products
often contain dangerous reproductive toxins known as phthalates which can leach
out of the plastic and enter the child’s body. These chemicals are so bad
they’ve been banned from use in toys in Europe, but they’re still
sold here! There is a double standard where companies are making safer products
in other countries while selling more hazardous products here.
There’s no question about it, chemical companies are trespassing on our
bodies. I don’t remember giving Dow Chemical permission to put these chemicals
in my body, do you? PVC isn’t good news for our animal friends either.
Many of these endocrine-disrupting chemicals are wreaking havoc on wildlife
around the world, from fish and birds in the Great Lakes to polar bears in
PVC is problematic from production to disposal. Can you discuss this?
What makes PVC unique from most other plastics is that it’s chlorinated.
It cannot be produced without using highly hazardous chemicals including chlorine
gas, cancer-causing vinyl chloride monomer and ethylene dichloride. These chemicals
are harmful to both workers and community residents living on the fenceline of
PVC factories, suffering from air and water pollution. Also, PVC can’t
be used without toxic additives, including lead, cadmium, and phthalates, posing
[further] risks to consumers.
To make matters worse, dioxins are released when PVC is manufactured and burned
in incinerators. Dioxins are a highly toxic group of chemicals that build up
in our bodies and the food chain, causing cancer and harm to the immune and reproductive
systems. PVC is the leading contributor of chlorine to municipal solid waste
incinerators, backyard burn barrels, medical waste incinerators, and secondary
copper smelters, which together account for an estimated 80 percent of dioxin
air emissions. For example, more than 100 municipal waste incinerators in the
U.S. burn 500 or 600 million pounds of PVC a year.
Can PVC products be recycled? What is the significance of the number 3?
PVC can technically be recycled, but it is very difficult because the many
additives used make it impossible to retain the unique properties of the original
In fact, PVC can contaminate and ruin other recyclable plastics because of
these additives. One PVC bottle can contaminate a recycling load of 100,000
bottles! That’s why the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers
have declared PVC a contaminant and organizations like the GrassRoots Recycling
has been working to phase it out.
One way to be sure if the packaging of a product is made from PVC is to look
for the number “3” inside or the letter “V” underneath
the universal recycling symbol. Just remember bad news comes in three’s,
don’t buy PVC!
PVC plants are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities
of color, making the production of PVC a major environmental justice concern
for neighboring residents. Can you discuss this?
The entire lifecycle of PVC is an issue of environmental justice and racism.
Many PVC plants are located near poor and communities of color. These facilities
have poisoned workers and fenceline neighbors, polluted the air, contaminated
drinking water supplies and even wiped entire neighborhoods off the map.
I went on an environmental health delegation to Mossville, LA, a few years
ago and was absolutely blown away by the amount of industry in such a concentrated
area. Air monitoring conducted by the EPA has shown that PVC plants have emitted
concentrations of vinyl chloride, a human carcinogen, more than 120 times higher
than the ambient air standard—making the air unhealthy to breathe. The
plants have polluted this community so badly, a significant portion of Mossville
families were forced to relocate. This area was literally a ghost town. All
you could see was broken down houses and places where driveways once stood.
by the federal government found the average Mossville resident has three times
more dioxin in their blood than the average U.S. citizen. In addition, testing
of breast milk from local mothers found elevated levels of dioxins as high
as 30 percent above the national average. As a result, community members [past
present] suffer from all sorts of health problems.
What about workers in PVC plants?
Studies have linked working in vinyl chloride production facilities to an increased
likelihood of developing diseases including angiosarcoma of the liver, a rare
form of liver cancer, brain cancer, lung cancer, lymphomas, leukemia and liver
cirrhosis. In 2004 a PVC plant in Illinois exploded, sending a plume of toxic
smoke for miles. Five workers were killed, four towns were evacuated, several
highways closed, a no-fly zone declared, and 300 firefighters from 27 surrounding
communities battled the flames for three days.
You are currently urging Target to join other retailers in phasing out PVC products
and packaging. What efforts are being made? Have you seen any success?
We initially contacted Target in the spring of 2006, with a coalition of over
60 health and environmental organizations. Unfortunately Target was not very
responsive so we kicked off a public campaign October 11th with a national
day of action. Nearly 30 stores all over the country faced demonstrations.
wore hazmat suits and carried a giant, inflatable rubber ducky, held signs,
handed out flyers to customers and delivered letters to store managers. As
part of this
campaign, we also launched a major internet campaign at pvcfree.org featuring
a new spoof video “Sam Suds and the Case of PVC, the Poison Plastic.”
Other retailers and companies like Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Nike, Ikea, H&M,
Johnson & Johnson, Honda and many others have committed to phasing out PVC
in products and/or packaging. Target has responded, indicating they are committed
to exploring alternatives to PVC. It is a good sign, however, we’d like
to see real action from Target.
I love Sam Suds the Poison Investigator. What was the objective in creating the
animated short? What reactions have you received?
I think activists spend too much time thinking that if we tell people enough
facts, they will change. But our message often doesn’t get through all
of the noise. We wanted to create something different, interesting, funny and
informative. The response we’ve received has been incredible and overwhelming.
Ever since we launched the video, I’ve been swamped with phone calls
and e-mails from people around the world letting us know how much they loved
video and are no longer going to buy PVC products.
I know that many of our veg and vegan readers use PVC products as alternatives
to leather (shoes, wallets, belts, etc.). Are there safer, less toxic options
The good news is that safer, cost-effective alternatives are readily available
for virtually every use of the poison plastic. Examples of alternatives include
natural fibers, plant-based plastics, and other plastics such as PET, HDPE, LDPE,
PEVA and EVA. For instance, PVC-free shower curtains made out of a safer plastic
called PEVA or EVA can be purchased at Ikea, Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The solution is to phase out PVC—there is really no place for it in the
21st century. Just like we’ve worked to stop exposing children to lead
paint, we must take steps toward the next generation in public and health policy
by getting unnecessary, dangerous materials like PVC off the market.
For information visit www.pvcfree.org.
© STEALTH TECHNOLOGIES INC.