PVC’s Asbestos & Mercury Problems

Bill Walsh | October 03, 2016

For those of you attending Greenbuild this week, I cordially invite you to my Wednesday morning panel, Let's Talk About PVC. Join me in conversation with a group of experts who have highly divergent views on the topic of whether polyvinylchloride plastic (PVC) is a green building material. For those of you who cannot attend, consider this:

Asbestos is an essential component of chlorine, and therefore, PVC production in the USA. [2] PVC demand correlates closely with construction spending. Chlorine is the main ingredient (60% by weight), the "C" in PVC.  

Visit HBN at Booth Number 1629.  

Wednesday, October 5: HBN Founder & President will speak on the panel "Let's Talk About PVC" from 8:00 to 10:00 AM Session: A13, Room 501 ABC

Thursday, October 6: HBN Board Member Linda Sorrento will speak at the AIA Materials Knowledge Working Group, Session: XX07 on the Expo Stage. 

Overall, chlorine manufacturing accounted for ninety percent of the asbestos consumed in the US last year. [6]

This is why the chemical and plastics industries oppose efforts to list asbestos as one of the top ten chemicals the EPA should review under the 2016 revisions to the Toxic Substances Control Act. Yes, you read that right. PVC manufacturers are arguing that asbestos, which has been banned in 55 countries, including the European Union [8] 

It is worth noting that chlorine manufacturers that don't use asbestos often use another highly toxic substance: mercury. Two chlorine plants in the U.S. still use mercury cell technology that was developed in the late 1800s. [11]

My fellow panelists at Greenbuild will include executives from global flooring manufacturer Tarkett as well as its chief consultant Dr. Michael Braungart, who argue that some PVC products are manufactured more sustainably than others. We acknowledge the company's industry leadership in PVC recycling. [13]

At Greenbuild, Dr. Braungart will make his case for reversing course, arguing that PVC building materials are an essential waste management strategy for toxic chlorine, which he characterizes as a byproduct of manufacturing caustic soda, also known as sodium hydroxide, an inorganic substance used in paper, textile, soap and other manufacturing. Braungart now says that: "As long as the demand for caustics prevails, a transitional chlorine management solution is obviously needed." [14]

Dr. Braungart is wrong. Chlorine is not a waste, it is a product whose production is directly correlated to PVC demand. Most independent authorities like the International Trade Commission agree that chlorine demand drives caustic production, not the other way around. [16]  

Notably, Braungart and Tarkett do not provide timelines for the end of virgin PVC consumption. Is it not absurd, if not unethical, to use our buildings as an infinite dumping ground for chlorinated plastics, knowing the vexatious environmental and health problems it will cause for our children and grandchildren, not to mention the countless victims of asbestos and mercury poisoning caused by the PVC industry today? [17] 

HBN Research Director Jim Vallette provided the underlying research and expert review of this article.

Note: in China mercury catalysts are frequently used in vinyl chloride production, not in chlorine production. The text of the newsletter has been edited to specify this.

Footnotes

[1] "North American Chlor Alkali Producers & Technologies" chart (page 6) in Olin. "Presentation Slides for Meeting: Olin," 2012. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/74303/000119312512463608/d436170dex991.htm.

[2] According to IHS Markit, "A majority of chlor-alkali capacity is built to supply feedstock for ethylene dichloride (EDC) production. EDC is then used to make vinyl chloride (VCM) and subsequently used to manufacture polyvinyl chloride (PVC). This chain, EDC to VCM to PVC, is normally called the vinyl chain. PVC demand correlates closely with construction spending, therefore, it can be concluded that chlorine consumption and production are driven by the construction industry. Hence, chlorine consumption growth depends on the growth of the global economy, since a country will spend more on construction if it has a healthy gross domestic product." (IHS Markit. "Chemical Economics Handbook: Chlorine/Sodium Hydroxide (Chlor-Alkali)," December 2014. https://www.ihs.com/products/chlorine-sodium-chemical-economics-handbook.html)

[3] U.S. Geological Survey. "ASBESTOS (Mineral Commodity Summary for 2015)," 2016. http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/asbestos/mcs-2016-asbes.pdf

[4] Carpentier, Steve. "Minaçu, a cidade que respira o amianto." CartaCapital, May 21, 2013. http://www.cartacapital.com.br/sustentabilidade/minacu-a-cidade-que-respira-o-amianto-8717.html  

[5] Shleynov, Roman. "Russia: The World's Asbestos Behemoth." International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, July 21, 2010. https://www.icij.org/project/dangers-dust/russia-worlds-asbestos-behemoth 

[6] Two chemical companies - Dow (now Olin) and Occidental - account for most of the asbestos consumed in the US, all of which is imported, mainly from Brazil. Over the last three years, according to shipping records, these companies imported over 1,301 metric tons (that's 2.87 million pounds) of asbestos to feed diaphragms that convert brine into chlorine and caustic soda. (Dow Chemical Company. "Dow Closes Transaction to Separate Significant Portion of Its Chlorine Value Chain," October 5, 2015. http://www.dow.com/en-us/news/press-releases/dow-closes-transaction-to-separate-significant-portion-of-its-chlorine-value-chain.) 

[7] EWG Action Fund. "Asbestos Bans around the World," 2016. http://www.asbestosnation.org/facts/asbestos-bans-around-the-world/

[8] Rizzuto, Pat. "EPA Asbestos Review May Trigger Probe of Chlorine Industry." Daily Environment Report, Bloomberg BNA, September 13, 2016. http://www.bna.com/epa-asbestos-review-n57982076918/  Similarly, in Europe, Dow and other chemical companies pressured authorities to delay an asbestos phaseout in chlorine production until at least 2025. See: Vogel, Laurent. "Asbestos: A Global Industrial Success Story - and Health Disaster." Academia.edu, 2011. http://www.academia.edu/13974266/Asbestos_A_global_industrial_success_story_-_and_health_disaster_2011_

[9] Vallette, James. "Still Crazy After All These Years: Mercury Cells in the Heart of America." Pharos Signal, March 22, 2016. https://www.pharosproject.net/blog/show/215/still-crazy

[10] Ministry of Environmental Protection (China). "Project Report on the Reduction of Mercury Use and Emission in Carbide PVC Production." United Nations Environment Programme, April 23, 2010. http://www.unep.org/chemicalsandwaste/Portals/9/Mercury/VCM%20Production/Phase%20I%20Final%20Report%20-%20PVC%20Project%20Report%20for%20China.pdf and IPEN, and Green Beagle. "China Chemical Safety Case Study: Qihua PVC Plant in Qiqihar, Heilongjiang Province." IPEN: a toxics-free future, January 2015. http://ipen.org/sites/default/files/documents/Case%20Study%20Report%20Qihua%202015r.pdf

[11] Healthy Building Network analysis of shipping records in the panjiva.com database.

[12] See page 22 of Vallette, James. "Post-Consumer Polyvinyl Chloride in Building Products." Healthy Building Network, April 2015. http://healthybuilding.net/uploads/files/post-consumer-polyvinyl-chloride-pvc-report.pdf

[13] Furio, Joanne. "Q&A: Michael Braungart." Metropolis, June 28, 2011. http://www.metropolismag.com/Point-of-View/June-2011/Q-A-Michael-Braungart/

[14] "Position Paper: PVC." EPEA Internationale Umweltforschung GmbH, December 2015. http://epea.com/en/content/position-paper-pvc

[15] The U.S. International Trade Commission states, "Historically, the demand for chlorine has tended to establish the production level for caustic soda." (U.S. International Trade Commission. "Chlorine From Canada: Determination of the Commission in Investigation No. 731-TA-90 (Preliminary) Under the Tariff Act of 1930, Together With the Information Obtained in the Investigation," May 1982.) Similarly, life cycle analysts state,"NaOH (sodium hydroxide or caustic soda) is a by-product of the chlorine-alkali process. As this process is determined by the long-term demand for chlorine, changes in demand for NaOH does not affect the output of NaOH from this process." (Wesnæs, M, and B P Weidema. "Long-term Market Reactions to Changes in Demand for NaOH." 2.-0 LCA Consultants, 2006. http://lca-net.com/publications/show/long-term-market-reactions-changes-demand-naoh/)

[16] According to the Wyoming MIning Association, "At the current rate of operation, Wyoming's reserves of trona will last 2,350 years." The U.S. Geological Survey in 1997 estimated the total reserve of trona to be 127 billion tons, but only 40 billion tons are recoverable. "Trona." Wyoming Mining Association, 2016. http://www.wyomingmining.org/minerals/trona/

[17] Healthy Building Network analysis of shipping records in the panjiva.com database.