PVC is short for poly(vinyl chloride). This polymer is made by polymerizing the monomer vinyl chloride. PVC is a very strong and very rigid plastic, and it is a really useful one, too. People use it to make pipes, the kind used for plumbing in most new houses. PVC is also used to make the “vinyl” siding on the outside of houses. PVC is flame-resistant because it contains chlorine. Compounds that contain chlorine often are. Because of this, PVC is useful for making fixtures for the interiors of airplanes, where a fire could be especially dangerous.
PVC also can be made into a soft and flexible plastic by mixing it with small-molecule compounds called plasticizers. The “new car” smell that motorists love so much comes in part from plasticizers evaporating from PVC in the seats and dashboards. Plasticized PVC can be used for a lot of things. It’s waterproof, so it can make things like tarps and raincoats. It’s also good for making clear flexible tubing.
But there is a problem: Those plasticizers that make PVC soft and flexible can be toxic and carcinogenic (cancer causing). The PVC itself isn’t toxic or carcinogenic, but the plasticizers can cause health problems. As if that weren’t enough, the monomer used to make PVC, vinyl chloride, is carcinogenic and can be harmful to people who work in the factories where PVC is made.
Coming up with a solution won’t be easy. Using PVC has risks, and some people would like to ban it. This may seem like a good idea, but alternatives to PVC are not always easy to find. In this activity, you and a partner will set out on a quest to find solutions to the PVC dilemma.
As a team of two, one of you will research PVC and what its uses and benefits are. The other team member will research the risks of using PVC. Each of you will prepare a 1-2 page report of your findings. This should take you the first lesson, Wednesday.
Once you have written your reports on PVC risks, you are to prepare another written report together (the second lesson, Thursday), this time on your ideas for possible solutions. Please try to avoid simplistic solutions such as “stop using PVC.” That only works if you have a good replacement for PVC in every possible use. Rather, your written report should answer the following questions:
- What materials might be used in place of PVC for certain applications?
- For what uses should people keep using PVC?
- What is copolymerization and how could it be used to make PVC soft without using toxic plasticizers?
- How can we protect workers who make PVC from the harmful effects of vinyl chloride?
Please collate all three reports and include a cover page and cite your sources in MLA format. Both team members will receive the same mark for the report so please make sure you work together and share the tasks fairly.
For uses and benefits of PVC:
Vinyl: One material, infinite uses
PVC Toys Info Centre
For The Risks of PVC:
Europe To Ban PVC Toys: BBC news item
The Perils of Plastic: Time magazine
Vinyl Chloride: A case study
Additional Information on PVC, plastics and polymers:
A World of Polymer FUN!
Public Health Notification