Code Green: PVC Elimination May Be The Most Significant Contribution You Can Make to Homeland Security

Bill Walsh | April 05, 2004 | Materials

Hyperbole? No.

PVC manufacturing consumes in excess of 40 per cent of the chlorine gas produced in this country, making it the nation's single largest user of the deadly chemical. By comparison, 5 percent of the nation's chlorine gas is used to disinfect water - and that includes sewage treatment.[1]

Chlorine gas kills and maims in a manner so heinous that it was banned as a chemical weapon after the battlefield experiences of World War I. Today, according to the Washington Post, anti-terrorist experts say there is "little doubt that plants storing large amounts of chlorine and other toxic chemicals are potential terrorist targets."[2] These chemicals are even more vulnerable while in transit, as the Wall Street Journal proved by following graffiti artists as they "tagged" chlorine tank cars within site of the US Capitol building, long after 9-11.[3]

The chemical industry's own estimates reveal that if the chlorine from just one tank car were released by accident, sabotage or direct attack, the toxic gas could travel two miles in 10 minutes and remain lethal as far away as 20 miles.[4] Based on testimony by Dr. Jay Boris, Chief Scientist at the US Naval Research Laboratory, 3 minutes after a catastrophic rupture of a rail car in Washington, DC, a lethal cloud could reach the National Mall. On July 4th, when thousands gather to watch the fireworks display, people could die at the rate of 100 per second.[5]

For this reason, Washington DC's water treatment plant phased-out chlorine gas after 9-11. In New Jersey, after the passage of the Toxic Catastrophe Prevention law, the number of water works using chlorine has dropped from 575 in 1988 to just 22 in 2001.[6]

These precautions are laudable, and verify chlorine reduction as a legitimate chemical security strategy. But ten times more chlorine is destined for PVC plastic than for municipal water treatment. PVC plastic can contain up to 50% chlorine by weight. By comparison, household bleach is typically less than three percent chlorine.[7]

Building materials account for more than 70% of all products manufactured of PVC. If we are willing to change the way we sanitize our drinking water in order to chip away at 5% of the vulnerable chlorine stockpile, what is the overriding interest that justifies keeping nearly ten times that amount on tap to make faux clapboard siding, picket fences, and vinyl flooring?

You can reduce the chlorine threat by eliminating PVC from the palette of green building materials, insisting that the US Green Building Council reward chlorine or PVC elimination with a LEED credit, and supporting legislation that would encourage chlorine use reduction as part of the national chemical security strategy.[8]

In an era of security alerts Yellow, Orange and Red, how can PVC be considered green?



On April 2, the Healthy Building Network submitted an update of the scientific evidence published since its December 2000 submission to the USGBC on environmental health effects of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) building materials. The document is intended to serve as a reader's guide to the primary documents, reports, and data submitted to the USGB's Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee (TSAC) in response to its November 2003 solicitation for evidence.

Download the report (PDF), or visit HBN's website at


The late March newsletter of BIPER USA features a recent commentary by Bill Walsh, National Coordinator of the Healthy Building Network. Check it out at


[1] Thornton, Joe. Pandora's Poison. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000, p.394.

[2] The Washington Post, "EPA Drops Chemical Security Effort" October 3, 2002, p. A17,


[4] US PIRG. "Protecting Our Hometowns, Preventing Chemical Terrorism in America: A Guide for Policymakers and Advocates," March, 2002,

[5] To read Dr. Boris's testimony, go to

[6] US PIRG, "Protecting Our Hometowns," p. 13.

[7] Calculation based on a 6% sodium hypochlorite solution, sodium hypochlorite is 50% chlorine.

[8] Chemical Security Act 2003