It Bears Repeating: PVC Elimination May Be the Most Significant Contribution You Can Make

Bill Walsh | June 17, 2009

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government identified U.S. chemical plants as one of the sectors of America’s infrastructure most vulnerable to terrorist attack.[1] Common sense efforts to reduce or eliminate risk by requiring chemical facilities to use available safer technologies over known high-risk commodities such as chlorine gas met with stiff resistance from chemical industry lobbyists. In 2006, then-Senator Barack Obama supported such a requirement, stating, "[B]y employing safer technologies, we can reduce the attractiveness of chemical plants as a target.” He was critical of chemical industry lobbying efforts for the exemption: “We cannot allow chemical industry lobbyists to dictate the terms of this debate. We cannot allow our security to be hijacked by corporate interests.”[2] But, the interim law passed that year prohibited the Department of Homeland Security from requiring chemical plants to use safer chemical technologies. These rules expire on October 4, 2009.

On June 18, 2009, the US House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee is scheduled to vote on the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2009, which would replace the expiring regulations and require some chemical facilities to use inherently safer technologies where feasible in order to reduce inherent risks.

There is broad-based support for this approach. At a 2008 congressional hearing on a similar measure, the Association of American Railroads testified that “It’s time for the nation’s big chemical companies to stop making the dangerous chemicals that can be replaced by safer substitutes or new technologies currently in the marketplace.... And if they won’t do it, Congress should do it for them.”[3] Previously, a 2006 report from the GAO concluded, “Implementing inherently safer technologies potentially could lessen the consequences of a terrorist attack by reducing the chemical risks present at facilities, thereby making facilities less attractive targets.”[4] And a June 2006 National Academy of Sciences study endorsed the adoption of safer technologies as "the most desirable solution to preventing chemical releases."[5]

One of the most talked about impacts of the law is the likelihood that it will reduce chlorine gas usage because of the huge risks its storage and transport pose to Americans. In New Jersey, after the passage of a similar state law, the Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act, the number of water works using chlorine has dropped from 575 in 1988 to just 22 in 2001.[6] A 2007 report by the Center For American Progress documents the national trend away from chlorine usage at water treatment facilities and the resulting reductions in risk to tens of millions of Americans.

The new legislation affirms the commitment of those in the green building movement who avoid PVC building products. The green building movement should join the chorus of voices supporting the new federal law.

Chlorine gas is an essential building block of many unhealthy building materials, and a key factor in many of the health and environmental problems that are associated with these materials still widely used in green buildings.[7] Polyurethane production, for example, represents an estimated 11% of the end uses of chlorine gas. PVC manufacturing is by far the single largest user of chlorine gas, consuming in excess of 40% of the chlorine gas produced in this country. Building materials account for more than 70% of all products manufactured of PVC. What’s more, other highly toxic chemical building blocks of PVC - ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride – would also be subject to the “inherently safer technology” provisions of the envisioned chemical security legislation.

For this reason it bears repeating: PVC Elimination May Be The Most Significant Contribution You Can Make to Homeland Security.


[1] In May 2009, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) identified approximately 6,400 high-risk U.S. chemical facilities. According to a March 2008 Congressional Research Service review of EPA data, 100 U.S. chemical plants each put 1 million or more people at risk. In 2004, the Homeland Security Council projected that an attack on a chemical facility would kill 17,500 people, seriously injure 10,000 more people and send an additional 100,000 people to the hospital. (Documentation available upon request.)

[2] Congressional Record, March 30, 2006, Section 43, p. S2612. Library of Congress.

[3] Association of American Railroads. “Homeland Security Committee urged to consider safer chemicals.”

[4] GAO. Homeland Security: DHS Is Taking Steps to Enhance Security at Chemical Facilities, but Additional Authority Is Needed. 2006.

[5] National Research Council, Committee on Assessing Vulnerabilities Related to the Nation's Chemical Infrastructure. Terrorism and the Chemical Infrastructure: Protecting People and Reducing Vulnerabilities. National Academies Press, 2006.

[6] US PIRG. "Protecting Our Hometowns: Preventing Chemical Terrorism in America: A Guide for Policymakers and Advocates," p. 13. 2002.

[7] For example, the presence of chlorine in PVC is key in making the release of highly carcinogenic dioxin unavoidable when PVC is manufactured or burned.