Are there any environmental or health drawbacks to putting vinyl siding on my house?
—Charles Leach, via e-mail
Vinyl siding may not pose identifiable risks once installed properly on your home, but its production and disposal contribute to a wide range of health and environmental problems. In producing Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), the basic element in all vinyl products, workers are exposed to a multitude of hazardous chemicals, These include chlorine gas, which can cause eye and skin irritation and breathing difficulties in the short term, and lung disease, among other maladies, from prolonged exposure.
Meanwhile, according to Greenpeace, the production process releases other dangerous chemicals, such as dioxin, into the environment surrounding PVC factories. Dioxin nearly wiped out the bald eagle in the lower 48 states, and it has been linked to cancer, endometriosis, neurological damage, immune system damage, respiratory problems, liver and kidney damage and birth defects in humans.
Perhaps an even larger problem is that there is no responsible way to dispose of PVC and vinyl siding at the end of its lifecycle. Landfills do not knowingly accept it, as it can pollute groundwater and result in dioxin-forming landfill fires. And unfortunately, vinyl cannot be recycled due to the chlorine used in its production. If mixed inadvertently into a recycling load, vinyl will contaminate everything therein.
Meanwhile, incinerating vinyl releases poisonous chlorine gas as well as dioxin into the air. When a house with vinyl siding catches fire, dioxin and other toxic gases escape into the air, posing an even greater threat than the fire itself in some cases. It is not unusual, fire fighters say, for people trapped in building fires to die of exposure to chemically toxic fumes before the flames actually reach them. Recently, a vinyl scrap yard fire forced the evacuation of 200 people from a Virginia community, while another created a major airborne dioxin hazard in Ontario.
“We know enough about the dangers of PVC to begin to phase it out,” says Lois Gibbs, the founder of the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment & Justice. “We need to tell corporations to protect our health and environment by switching to non-PVC materials.” Gibbs is the housewife-turned-activist who spurred the government into creating its Superfund program to clean-up contaminated waste sites around the country after she discovered that her neighborhood in Love Canal, NY in 1978 was located on a 20,000-ton chemical waste dump.
Luckily for concerned homeowners, safer alternatives to vinyl siding do exist. According to the organization Greenaction, siding made from wood, fiber-cement board, or polypropylene is better for the environment and for human health. While some of these materials are available at Home Depot, local stores selling only green building materials would offer the best selection.