November 4th, 2011
05:39 PM ET
Hospitals and public health professionals are pushing to find alternatives to soft-plastic PVC found in IV bags, tubing, neo-natal masks – even flooring and carpeting.
These products are softened with additives called plasticizers. Most often, these plasticizers contain phthalates, which have been restricted in toys in the United States because of fears they disrupt the delicate body’s delicate chemical signaling system.
The American Public Health Association this week passed a resolution urging facilities such as hospitals, schools and nursing homes reduce the amount of PVC they use, especially with phthalates.
“These additives have toxic characteristics and are gradually released posing risks to infants, children and other vulnerable populations,” the APHA said in its resolution.
The APHA counts among its 25,000 members federal, state and local public health officials, epidemiologists, academics and others.
“This is an issue whose time has come,” said Brenda Afzal of the APHA’s governing council. “There is a preponderance of evidence that this is a problem.”
Allen Blakey, a spokesman for the Vinyl Institute, a trade organization, said the resolution was misguided.
"I think it’s based on old, outdated information - misinformation. I don't think it reflects at all what science is saying about PVC. I think I would call it more of a political document than a public health document," Blakey said.
The resolution comes on the heels of a move by five large purchasing companies representing 1,100 hospitals and $135 billion in buying power to push manufacturers of medical products to make them with safer chemicals.
The group, called Practice Greenhealth, agreed in October to ask all suppliers a series of questions including whether their products contain PVC.
“I think it’s going to be one of the products that over the next five to ten years the health care sector is going to want to phase out, as it did mercury (in thermometers), and it will stimulate significant innovation toward safer and more sustainable plastics,” said Gary Cohen, president and co-founder of Health Care Without Harm, which organized the coalition of hospital purchasing companies.
Cohen noted that companies had already developed PVC-free IV bags and tubing and pointed to several large hospital chains as signs PVCs days are numbered.
Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health plans, has committed to eliminated PVC from its hospitals. Kaiser Permanente spends $1 billion a year on medical products and equipment alone.
Catholic Healthcare West in 2005 converted its 30 hospitals to PVC and phthalate free IV bags and tubing.
Blakey, of the Vinyl Institute, said PVC remained the most widely used material in blood bags and tubings.
"It's just got great properties. It's flexible. It's kink resistant. It can be steam sterilized. It can be frozen," Blakey said.
Every year, almost 15 billion pounds of PVC are produced in the United States for pipes, building materials and a myriad of other uses. In consumer goods, it's marked with the recycling code #3.
Production of PVC results in emissions of vinyl chloride, classified by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services as a known human carcinogen. Incineration of PVC waste releases chemicals called dioxins, also carcinogens.
A growing body of research has found phthalates, used to soften PVC, are linked to health problems.
A Columbia University study published in September finding prenatal exposure to phthalates linked to decreased mental and motor development at age three.
In its resolution, the American Public Health Association cited studies linking phthalate exposure to asthma and reproductive problems.
The resolution urged local, state and federal governments to educate administrators and purchasing staff “about PVC hazards and safer alternatives in schools, day care centers, medical care facilities, nursing homes, public housing, facilities for special needs and the disabled, and other facilities with vulnerable populations.”
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