Spinning Vinyl: A Response for the Record

Jim Vallette - July 13, 2016

The Vinyl Institute, an association of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) manufacturers, continues its industry-sponsored campaign against the Healthy Building Network in its latest blog post, “VALLETTE COULD USE A FACT CHECKER… (AND A PROOFREADER).” Like earlier posts in its Vinyl Verified website, this article has no discernible author.

Its strategy mirrors that of industry-funded climate change skepticism: deny that a problematic condition exists or minimize their industry’s contribution to the problem, and deride others’ claims about these problems as false, misleading scare tactics.[1] 

The Vinyl Institute’s Vinyl Verified blog is a gussied-up version of the “Vinyl News Service” website that it ran from 2005 to 2012.[2]  The VNS featured works of art by industry-paid skeptics like Patrick Moore who wrote in 2007, “The anti-vinyl activists have made a lot of crazy allegations about the effects of vinyl. For instance, they say that chewable baby toys are going to cause health problems in infants.” A year later, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.[3] The federal law bans certain phthalates in toys and child care products due to the very concerns that Moore and the Vinyl Institute denounced for many years.[4]

The vinyl industry websites execute a strategy championed by Jon Entine, whom the U.S. Right To Know (RTK) campaign called earlier this year “the chemical industry’s master messenger.” The Vinyl Institute is a client of ESG Mediametrics, which Entine founded.[5] “Entine has been a prominent defender of chemical industry interests, following the industry playbook: he defends the chemicals as safe; argues against regulation; and attacks science, scientists and others raising concern,” said RTK.[6] 

As Robin Guenther, a principal at the architecture firm Perkins+Will, muses, “Tobacco companies defend cigarette smoking, PVC companies will always defend PVC, right?”[7]

In its latest article, the Vinyl Institute asks:Why does Vallette irresponsibly fixate on PVC while ignoring the hundreds of uses of chlorine by the two plants he spotlights?”

The Vinyl Institute has a habit of making absolute claims that do not hold up to scrutiny. This includes an oft-repeated refrain that there is “no mercury cell chlorine used in PVC manufacture.”[8] That’s what sparked my initial article, “Still Crazy After All These Years: Mercury Cells in the Heart of America.” I reveal that four chlorine plants in the U.S. and Mexico continue to use toxic mercury cells. This fact had not been reported anywhere else. I also note that 44 chlorine plants worldwide still use mercury worldwide. Bear this in mind: The PVC industry consumed at least 34% of the world’s chlorine in 2014.[9] A report published by the World Chlorine Council (of which the Vinyl Institute is a member) notes, “The largest outlet for chlorine is polyvinyl chloride which is a large volume, low value commodity.”[10]

In its Vinyl Verified post, “JUST BECAUSE HBN SAYS IT DOESN’T MEAN IT’S TRUE,” the Institute responded to my original article with an unequivocal claim about the two chlorine plants in the U.S. that continue to use mercury cells. They write, without qualification: “It bears repeating -- neither the ASHTA plant in Ashtabula, Ohio plant [sic][11] nor the Axiall plant in Proctor, West Virginia supply the PVC industry in any manner.” (emphasis added). Neither ASHTA nor Axiall are members of the Vinyl Institute, so it is unclear how the authors came to such a sweeping conclusion.

My second article, The Vinyl Industry Strikes Back, is the product not of a fixation, but rather a necessary response to the VI’s first rebuttal. I provide details and extensive footnotes, explaining exactly the manners in which the Ohio and West Virginia plants supply the PVC industry.  

The Vinyl Institute says: “Vallette infers that chlorine shipped from Axiall’s WV plant supports vinyl chloride production in other locations – but he fails to prove it.”

I don’t infer this. I recite Axiall’s own literature stating that the company ships chlorine by barge from West Virginia to its own plants in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and to other companies’ plants worldwide.

My article quotes Axiall as follows:

“Transportation of chlorine by barge plays a role in balancing operations in Axiall’s chlor-alkali network,” says Mark Sinclair, manager of customer service and logistics at the Natrium facility. “Chlorine is transferred internally from Natrium to the Lake Charles facilities when additional material is needed…. (V)inyl-chloride monomer produced at Axiall’s Lake Charles North and South plants is sent to the Aberdeen, Miss., facility for PVC production.”[12]

While Axiall generally produces enough chlorine at its Lake Charles facility to cover its regional vinyl chloride monomer production, planned and unplanned outages are routine in the chemical industry.[13] Due to cost and security concerns, companies try to avoid stockpiling chlorine.[14] Times of internal chlorine shortages, “when additional material is needed” as Axiall states, are precisely when a backup plan like barging in chlorine from another plant can be handy.

In addition, according to a presentation to investors, Axiall sells up to 40% of its chlorine on the open market in North America.[15] In 2014 and 2015, this figure was around 28%.[16] There are no data available for the PVC industry’s share of merchant chlorine consumption.[17] By definition, any company including manufacturers of PVC feedstock  running short on in-house chlorine must obtain it from the commercial market.

The Vinyl Institute says: “He initially claimed a mercury cell chlorine plant in East Berlin, New Hampshire was used by the PVC industry.”

My follow-up article, Still Crazy After All These Years: Mercury Cells in the Heart of America, focused not only on PVC, but on the history of mercury cell technology, and its legacy of pollution. It’s absurd that any company on the planet is still using mercury cells to turn brine into chlorine. Any company, from any sector, that gets its chlorine from a mercury cell plant needs to find another supplier. The sentence listing places contaminated by mercury did not claim that the New Hampshire plant was used by the PVC industry. My original article states, “The recent toll from mercury pollution at chlorine, vinyl chloride monomer, and related mercury waste processing plants worldwide, reaches from the state of New Hampshire, to Cartagena, Columbia, Cato Ridge, South Africa, Tainan City, Taiwan, and many other places.”

For clarity, I have replaced the New Hampshire reference in that post with one of the too-many examples I could have used instead: Olin’s recently converted mercury cell plant in Charleston, Tennessee.[18] Olin’s website names the vinyl industry as a plant customer.[19] Oceana, the ocean conservation advocacy organization, tested sediment near this chlor-alkali plant. It reported in 2008, “Sediment mercury levels in the Hiwassee River, near and downstream of Olin are so high that some sediment dwelling organisms are predicted to die within 10 days of exposure to them.”[20] The state of Tennessee has long advised people not to consume largemouth bass along this stretch of river due to mercury contamination.[21]

The Vinyl Institute says:Vallette’s claim that ‘all’ of ASHTA’s chlorine production serves Cristal’s titanium dioxide manufacturing is a lie.”

The Cristal titanium dioxide complex adjacent to ASHTA in Ashtabula, Ohio, is one of the world’s largest titanium dioxide plants. According to the EPA and the company, this complex consumes all of the chlorine that ASHTA produces.

Here are the most recent statements available for the record:

  • A 2010 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency analysis states that “ASHTA’s production facility is located adjacent to the titanium dioxide plant [now called Cristal] to which it sells 100% of its chlorine.”[22] This plant is the largest titanium dioxide facility owned by Cristal, a Saudi Arabian company. Cristal is the world’s second largest producer of titanium dioxide.[23]
  • In 2009, ASHTA’s Executive Vice President Richard Jackson testified at a Congressional hearing that “100% of the chlorine that we produce is sold to a company located adjacent to ASHTA’s facility.”[24]

The Vinyl Institute says: “Vallette desperately tries to blame the PVC industry for the events at Cato Ridge, a mercury recovery facility in South Africa that closed in 1998…. His evidence? Small shipments of mercury and vinyl chloride waste sent by one company, prior to 1998, for treatment at the South Africa plant.”

Again, the industry doesn’t like the fact that my second article contradicts their denials of complicity. In its first response, the VI says “Vallette again misinforms his readers that the environmental burden from this facility that reclaimed mercury from electrical equipment now is attributed to the PVC industry.” In my response to that charge, I note that Borden Chemicals sent over 300,000 pounds of hazardous waste from PVC production to Cato Ridge. It is chilling that the vinyl industry considers the illegal dumping of 300,000 pounds of toxic waste from the US PVC industry into the apartheid-era Bantustan of KwaZulu-Natal to be a “small shipment.”  

At the Healthy Building Network, we research all types of building materials. It doesn’t matter what type of product – plastic, fiber, metal or mineral – we try to understand how all of them are made, and what are their potential impacts on people and the environment. Through our methodical approach, we are often the first to discover hazards from many materials, from roofing to flooring to even the dirt brought into construction sites. We also often discover misleading information in company and industry association literature.

We appreciate the productive discussions we've had with many industry associations and manufacturers about concerns identified in the course of our research. Many, including companies that produce vinyl building materials, have been willing to address issues like phthalates and contaminants in recycled feedstocks. The Vinyl Institute is not yet one of them.

Join Feliks Bezati (Tarkett), Suzanne Drake (Perkins+Will), Wes Sullens (StopWaste) and me for "A Frank Conversation: PVC, Transparency and Recycling." Our panel discussion is part of the forthcoming Living Products Expo in Pittsburgh, September 13-15. For more information and to register, visit http://www.livingproductexpo.org

[1] Vess, Lora Elizabeth. “The Politics of PVC (Dissertation).” University of Oregon, December 2007. https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/handle/1794/6195.

[2] Vinyl Institute Inc. “Vinyl News Service,” December 28, 2012. https://web.archive.org/web/20121228231608/http://www.vinylnewsservice.net/.

[3] Corley, Heather. “What Is CPSIA?” about parenting, March 17, 2016. http://babyproducts.about.com/od/recallsandsafety/f/CPSIA.htm.

[4] For example, in 1997 Greenpeace warned that children were at particular risk from phthalate plasticizers in PVC toys. It said there were serious emerging concerns about these chemicals’ health effects, including cancer, reproductive harm, and the possible disruption of the body’s endocrine system. It called for a ban on PVC toys. The Vinyl Institute’s communications firm, Edward Howard & Co., advised industry members to tell reporters that “Everything we know about phthalates tells us that they do not present the types of health threats that Greenpeace claims.” It called Greenpeace’s claims “unsubstantiated hypotheses, which will do nothing but unnecessarily alarm parents.” Jacobs, Nora. “Greenpeace Attack on Toys (memo to Vinyl Institute Board Members Operating Committee).” Edward Howard & Co., February 7, 1997. http://www.chemicalindustryarchives.org/search/PDFs/cma/19970207_00001964.pdf.

[5] ESG MediaMetrics. “Jon Entine.” ESG MediaMetrics, 2010. https://web.archive.org/web/20120516134340/http:/www.esgmediametrics.com/founder.htm

[6] Ruskin, Gary. “Jon Entine: The Chemical Industry’s Master Messenger.” U.S. Right To Know, February 16, 2016. http://usrtk.org/hall-of-shame/jon-entine-the-chemical-industrys-master-messenger/

[7] Walsh, Bill. “Imagine, Cancer Treatment Centers Built Without Carcinogens: Green Guide For Health Care Co-Director Robin Guenther, AIA.” Healthy Building News, April 20, 2005. http://www.healthybuilding.net/news/2005/04/20/imagine-cancer-treatment-centers-built-without-carcinogens-green-guide-for-health-care-co-director-robin-guenther-aia.

[8] Krock, Rich. “Update on U.S. Vinyl Industry.” PDF presented at the Fifth Andean PVC Conference, September 25, 2012. http://www.foroandinopvc.org.co/conferencia_2012/memorias/Krock_US_vinyl_industry.pdf.

[9] Gamboa, Ana. “North America: Market Drivers, Supply and Demand for PVC.” April 2015. https://www.ifai.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Gamboa-Torres-Ana_Outlook-2015.pdf.

According to Nexant, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride monomer (PVC’s essential feedstocks) consumed 48% of the world’s chlorine in 2011. Hartley, Matthew. “Chlor-Alkali.” Nexant, May 2012. http://thinking.nexant.com/sites/default/files/report/field_attachment_abstract/201205/2011_7_abs.pdf.

[10] UNEP Global Mercury Partnership Chlor-Alkali Area. “Conversion from Mercury to Alternative Technology in the Chlor-Alkali Industry.” World Chlorine Council, June 2012. http://www.worldchlorine.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Partnership-Document-on-the-Conversion-from-Mercury-to-Alternative-Technology-in-the-Chlor-Alkali-Industry.pdf.

[11] Maybe the anonymous blogger needs a proofreader too?

[12] Axiall Corporation. “Keeping Axiall Products on the Rails; Keeping Axiall Products Flowing,” Summer 2015. http://www.axiall.com/uploadedFiles/Content/News/Articles/About%20Axiall%20-%20Transport%20Series.pdf.

[13] See for example, PPG Industries. “PPG Lake Charles Chlor-Alkali Complex Experiences Unplanned Outage,” December 7, 2012. http://www.ppgaerospace.com/About-Us/News/20121207A; ICIS Chemical Business. “Chlor-Alkali Market Recovers at Slow Pace.” ICIS, September 6, 2010. http://www.icis.com/resources/news/2010/09/06/9389561/chlor-alkali-market-recovers-at-slow-pace/; PPG Industries. “Limited Chlor-Alkali Production Resumes at PPG’s Lake Charles, La., Chemicals Complex.” Business Wire, October 10, 2005. http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20051010005684/en/Limited-Chlor-Alkali-Production-Resumes-PPGs-Lake-Charles.

[14] According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, “No significant inventories of chlorine are maintained because there are tremendous costs and hazards related to the storage of the product.” U.S. International Trade Commission. “Chlorine From Canada: Determination of the Commission in Investigation No. 731-TA-90 (Preliminary) Under the Tariff Act of 1930, Together With the Information Obtained in the Investigation,” May 1982. (ITC)

[15]  Axiall Corporation. “Axiall Overview.” presented at the Goldman Sachs Houston Chemical Intensity Day, March 2013. http://phx.corporate-ir.net/External.File?item=UGFyZW50SUQ9NDk4MDY1fENoaWxkSUQ9NTM3NDY0fFR5cGU9MQ==&t=1.

[16] Axiall Corporation. “Form 10-K (2015 Annual Report).” United States Securities and Exchange Commission, February 26, 2016. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/805264/000119312516483042/d82062d10k.htm.

[17] A 1982 U.S. International Trade Commission report estimated that 60% of chlorine was used internally, and 40% was sold on the open market. It further estimated that 15 percent of commercial chlorine went to municipalities for water treatment, but it did not provide further customer breakdowns. (ITC)

[18] Oceana. “Olin Corporation’s Two Dinosaur Mercury Plants Will End Mercury Use and Releases,” December 10, 2010. http://oceana.org/press-center/press-releases/olin-corporation%E2%80%99s-two-dinosaur-mercury-plants-will-end-mercury-use-and.

[19] Olin. “Locations: Charleston, TN,” 2016. https://www.olinchloralkali.com/en-us/Locations/Charleston-TN.

[20] Oceana. “Mercury On The Hiwassee,” April 2008. http://oceana.org/sites/default/files/reports/OlinTNReport.pdf.

[21] Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “Contaminants in Fish,” 2016. http://tennessee.gov/twra/article/contaminants-in-fish.

[22] US Environmental Protection Agency. “Regulatory Impact Analysis: Proposed National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) for Mercury Emissions from Mercury Cell Chlor Alkali Plants,” November 2010. https://www3.epa.gov/ttnecas1/regdata/RIAs/mercurycell.pdf.

[23] Cristal. “About Cristal,” 2016. http://www.cristal.com/about-us/Pages/default.aspx ; Terry, Shelley. “Cristal Global Moves 370 Ton Centerpiece.” Ashtabula Star Beacon. March 31, 2015. http://www.starbeacon.com/news/local_news/slideshow-cristal-global-moves-ton-centerpiece/article_e0ae7e32-d739-11e4-9a8b-e733674ce6db.htm.

[24] Jackson, Richard. “Testimony of ASHTA Chemicals Inc. Pertaining to the Mercury Pollution Reduction Act of 2009 (H.R. 2190) Before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, Committee on Energy and Commerce.” United States House of Representatives, May 12, 2009.

Jim Vallette is the Research Director for the Healthy Building Network.