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Is PVC Bad for Children? A Pediatrician Addresses the Controversy

yellow rubber duck pvc

by Kari Kassir, M.D.

Q. Is PVC dangerous for children. Why? And what is it?

A. PVC is a commonly used material found in building supplies, toys, medical supplies and more. It stands for polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as vinyl. It’s hard and brittle at room temperature. A plasticizer, or softener, can be added to increase flexibility.

Products made from PVC include pipes, packaging materials, toys, medical tubing and bags, shower curtains, baby supplies (such as bibs), lunch boxes and coolers. The list could go on and on.


One of the first big concerns about PVC is vinyl chloride, a manufactured gas used in the production of PVC and numerous other products. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, long-term exposure has been associated with liver damage and increased risk for a rare liver cancer. There is concern about vinyl chloride leaching from PVC containers used to store foods, as well as concern about the environmental impact from manufacture and disposal.

Certain additives to PVC products comprise another area of concern. Phthalates, added for flexibility, do not bind to the PVC, and have been found to leach out of the plastic in tiny amounts, as has another additive in some hard plastics, bisphenol A.

But there is some controversy in the scientific community over what to do about PVC, if anything. The mainline consensus seems to be, we simply don’t have good answers right now. Much of what we do know about the potential harmful effects come from animal studies, which are notorious for not panning out when it comes to humans. Then again, they often do prove to be true; otherwise, why would we continue to do them?


In my opinion, common sense dictates limiting exposure to susceptible infants, such as those critically ill in the neonatal ICU. Also, it’s not clear how much phthalate leaches out of phthalate-containing toys when toddlers put them in their mouths and chew on them, but this is not a risk some toy manufacturers are willing to take. (PVC may also contain other harmful substances such as lead and the metal cadmium.)

While the available literature on PVC is not definitive, its safety is in question, particularly for susceptible people. In general, the movement to find safer and greener alternatives to PVC is building, and it is finding support from major corporations and federal agencies.

Board-certified pediatrician KARI KASSIR, M.D., is a pediatric critical-care physician at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Mission Viejo, Calif.

Last updated and/or approved: May 2010. Original article appeared in July/August 2008 former print magazine. Bio current as of July 2008. This article is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.


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