Public Health Statement for Vinyl Chloride
Spanish: Cloruro de vinilo
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This Public Health Statement is the summary chapter from the Toxicological Profile for Vinyl Chloride. It is one in a series of Public Health Statements about hazardous substances and their health effects. A shorter version, the ToxFAQsTM, is also available. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present. For more information, call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-800-232-4636.
This public health statement tells you about vinyl chloride and the effects of exposure to it.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
identifies the most serious hazardous waste sites in
the nation. These sites are then placed on the
National Priorities List (NPL) and are targeted for
long-term federal clean-up activities. Vinyl
chloride has been found in at least 616 of the
1,662 current or former NPL sites. Although the
total number of NPL sites evaluated for this
substance is not known, the possibility exists that
the number of sites at which vinyl chloride is found
could increase in the future as more sites are
evaluated. This information is important because
these sites may be sources of exposure, and
exposure to this substance can harm you.
When a substance is released either from a large
area, such as an industrial plant, or from a container,
such as a drum or bottle, it enters the environment.
Such a release does not always lead to exposure.
You can be exposed to a substance only when you
come in contact with it. You may be exposed by breathing, eating, or drinking the substance, or by
If you are exposed to vinyl chloride, many factors
will determine whether you will be harmed. These
factors include the dose (how much), the duration
(how long), and how you come in contact with it.
You must also consider any other chemicals you are
exposed to and your age, sex, diet, family traits,
lifestyle, and state of health.
What is vinyl chloride?
Vinyl chloride is known also as chloroethene,
chloroethylene, ethylene monochloride, or
monochloroethylene. At room temperature, it is a
colorless gas, it burns easily, and it is not stable at
high temperatures. Vinyl chloride exists in liquid
form if kept under high pressure or at low
temperatures. Vinyl chloride has a mild, sweet
odor, which may become noticeable at 3,000 parts
vinyl chloride per million parts (ppm) of air.
However, the odor is of little value in preventing
excess exposure. Most people begin to taste vinyl
chloride in water at 3.4 ppm.
Vinyl chloride is a manufactured substance that
does not occur naturally; however, it can be formed
in the environment when other manufactured
substances, such as trichloroethylene, trichloroethane,
and tetrachloroethylene, are broken down by
certain microorganisms. Production of vinyl
chloride in the United States grew at an average rate
of about 7% from the early 1980s to the early
1990s, with current growth at about 3% annually.
Most of the vinyl chloride produced in the United
States is used to make a polymer called polyvinyl
chloride (PVC), which consists of long repeating units of vinyl chloride. PVC is used to make a
variety of plastic products including pipes, wire and
cable coatings, and packaging materials. Other uses
include furniture and automobile upholstery, wall
coverings, housewares, and automotive parts. At
one time, vinyl chloride was used as a coolant, as a
propellant in spray cans, and in some cosmetics.
However, since the mid-1970s, vinyl chloride
mostly has been used in the manufacture of PVC.
What happens to vinyl chloride when it enters the environment?
Most of the vinyl chloride that enters the
environment comes from vinyl chloride
manufacturing or processing plants, which release it
into the air or into waste water. EPA limits the
amount that industries can release. Vinyl chloride
also is a breakdown product of other synthetic
chemicals. Vinyl chloride has entered the
environment at hazardous waste sites as a result of
improper disposal or leakage from storage
containers or spills, but some may result from the
breakdown of other chemicals. In addition, vinyl
chloride has been found in tobacco smoke at very
Liquid vinyl chloride evaporates easily. Vinyl
chloride in water or soil evaporates rapidly if it is
near the surface. Vinyl chloride in the air breaks
down in a few days, resulting in the formation of
several other chemicals including hydrochloric acid,
formaldehyde, and carbon dioxide.
Some vinyl chloride can dissolve in water. Vinyl
chloride can migrate to groundwater and can be in groundwater due to the breakdown of other
chemicals. Vinyl chloride is unlikely to build up in
plants or animals that you might eat.
How might I be exposed to vinyl chloride?
Because vinyl chloride usually exists in a gaseous
state, you are most likely to be exposed to it by
breathing it. Vinyl chloride is not normally found
in urban, suburban, or rural air in amounts that are
detectable by the usual methods of analysis.
However, vinyl chloride has been found in the air
near vinyl chloride manufacturing and processing
plants, hazardous waste sites, and landfills. The
amount of vinyl chloride in the air near these places
ranges from trace amounts to over 1 ppm. Levels as
high as 44 ppm were found in the air at some
landfills. You can also be exposed to vinyl chloride
in the air through tobacco smoke from cigarettes or
cigars (both active smoking and second-hand
smoke). Levels of vinyl chloride in tobacco smoke
are very low, usually around 5–30 nanograms per
cigarette (a nanogram is 0.000000001 gram).
You can be exposed to vinyl chloride by drinking
water from contaminated wells. Most drinking
water supplies do not contain vinyl chloride. In a
1982 survey, vinyl chloride was found in fewer than
1% of the 945 groundwater supplies tested in the
United States. The concentrations in groundwater
were up to 0.008 ppm. Other studies have reported
vinyl chloride in groundwater at concentrations at
or below 0.38 ppm. At one time, the flow of water
through PVC pipes added very low amounts of
vinyl chloride to water. For example, in one study
of newly installed pipes, the drinking water had 0.001 ppm of vinyl chloride. No current
information is available about the amount of vinyl
chloride released from PVC pipes into water. In the
past, vinyl chloride could get into food stored in
materials containing PVC, but the U.S. government
now regulates the amount of vinyl chloride in food
packaging materials. When less than about 1 ppm
of vinyl chloride is trapped in PVC packaging, vinyl
chloride in detectable amounts does not enter food
by contact with these products.
People who work at facilities that make vinyl
chloride or PVC usually are exposed to higher
levels than the general population. Work exposure
occurs primarily from breathing air that contains
vinyl chloride, but workers also are exposed when
vinyl chloride contacts the skin or eyes. Based on
studies using animals, it is possible that if vinyl
chloride comes into contact with your skin or eyes,
extremely small amounts could enter your body.
How can vinyl chloride enter and leave my body?
If vinyl chloride gas contacts your skin, tiny
amounts may pass through the skin and enter your
body. Vinyl chloride is more likely to enter your
body when you breathe air or drink water
containing it. This could occur near certain
factories or hazardous waste sites or in the
workplace. At low levels (<20 ppm), most of the
vinyl chloride that you breathe or swallow enters
your blood rapidly, then travels throughout your
body. When some portion of it reaches your liver,
your liver changes it into several substances. Most
of these new substances also travel in your blood;
once they reach your kidneys, they leave your body in your urine. Most of the vinyl chloride is gone
from your body a day after you breathe or swallow
it. The liver, however, makes some new substances
that do not leave your body as rapidly. A few of
these new substances are more harmful than vinyl
chloride because they react with chemicals inside
your body and interfere with the way your body
normally uses or responds to these chemicals.
Some of these substances react in the liver and,
depending on how much vinyl chloride you breathe
in, may produce damage there. Your body needs
more time to get rid of these changed chemicals, but
eventually removes them as well. If you breathe or
swallow more vinyl chloride than your liver can
chemically change, you will breathe out excess
How can vinyl chloride affect my health?
Scientists use many tests to protect the public from
harmful effects of toxic chemicals and to find ways
to treat people who have been harmed.
One way to learn whether a chemical will harm
people is to determine how the body absorbs, uses,
and releases the chemical. For some chemicals,
animal testing may be necessary. Animal testing
may also help identify health effects, such as cancer
or birth defects. Without laboratory animals,
scientists would lose a basic method for getting
information needed to make wise decisions that
protect public health. Scientists have the
responsibility to treat research animals with care
and compassion. Scientists must comply with strict
animal-care guidelines because laws today protect
the welfare of research animals.
If you breathe high levels of vinyl chloride, you will
feel dizzy or sleepy. These effects occur within
5 minutes if you are exposed to about 10,000 ppm
of vinyl chloride. You can easily smell vinyl
chloride at this concentration. It has a mild, sweet
odor. If you breathe still higher levels (25,000
ppm), you may pass out. You can rapidly recover
from these effects if you breathe fresh air. Some
people get a headache when they breathe fresh air
immediately after breathing very high levels of
vinyl chloride. People who breathe extremely high
levels of vinyl chloride can die. Studies in animals
show that extremely high levels of vinyl chloride
can damage the liver, lungs, and kidneys. These
levels also can damage the heart and prevent blood
clotting. The effects of ingesting vinyl chloride are
unknown. If you spill liquid vinyl chloride on your
skin, it will numb the skin and produce redness and
Some people who have breathed vinyl chloride for
several years have changes in the structure of their
livers. People are more likely to develop these
changes if they breathe high levels of vinyl
chloride. Some people who have worked with vinyl
chloride have nerve damage, and others develop an
immune reaction. The lowest levels that produce
liver changes, nerve damage, and immune reaction
in people are not known. Certain jobs related to
PVC production expose workers to very high levels
of vinyl chloride (i.e., pools of liquid vinyl chloride
in vats or autoclaves). Some of these workers have
problems with the blood flow in their hands. Their
fingers turn white and hurt when they go into the
cold and may take a long time to recover when they
go into a warm place. In some of these people,
changes have appeared on the skin of their hands
and forearms. Also, bones at the tips of their
fingers have broken down. Studies suggest that some people may be more sensitive to these effects
Some men who work with vinyl chloride have
complained of a lack of sex drive. Studies in
animals showed that long-term exposure can
damage the sperm and testes. Some women who
work with vinyl chloride have reported irregular
menstrual periods. Some have developed high
blood pressure during pregnancy.
Results from several studies have suggested that
breathing air or drinking water containing moderate
levels (100 ppm) of vinyl chloride might increase
their risk for cancer. However, the levels used in
these studies were much higher than levels found in
the ambient air and/or most drinking water supplies.
Studies of workers who have breathed vinyl
chloride over many years showed an increased risk
for cancer of the liver. Brain cancer, lung cancer,
and some cancers of the blood also may be
connected with breathing vinyl chloride over long
periods. Studies of long-term exposure in animals
showed that cancer of the liver and mammary gland
may increase at very low levels of vinyl chloride in
the air (50 ppm). Lab animals fed low levels of
vinyl chloride each day (2 mg/kg/day) during their
lifetime had an increased risk of getting liver
The U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services has determined that vinyl chloride is a
known carcinogen. The International Agency for
Research on Cancer has determined that vinyl
chloride is carcinogenic to people, and EPA has
determined that vinyl chloride is a human
How can vinyl chloride affect children?
This section discusses potential health effects in
humans from exposures during the period from
conception to maturity at 18 years of age.
No studies are available that specifically address the
effects of vinyl chloride in children. Studies of
women who live near vinyl chloride manufacturing
plants did not show that vinyl chloride produces
birth defects. Studies using pregnant animals
showed that breathing high levels of vinyl chloride
(5,000 ppm) can harm unborn baby animals.
Animal studies also show that vinyl chloride can
produce more miscarriages early in pregnancy and
decrease weight and delay skeletal development in
fetuses. These same very high levels of vinyl
chloride also caused harmful effects in the pregnant
animals. Inhalation studies with animals have
suggested that vinyl chloride might affect growth
and development. Animal studies also suggest that
infants and young children might be more
susceptible than adults to vinyl chloride-induced
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to vinyl chloride?
If your doctor finds that you have been exposed to
substantial amounts of vinyl chloride, ask whether
your children might also have been exposed. Your
doctor might need to ask your state health
department to investigate.
You can take some steps to limit your exposure to
vinyl chloride. Very low levels of vinyl chloride
exist in the ambient air, but these levels are usually
not high enough to be a cause of concern. If you
live near a hazardous waste site, municipal landfill,
or a chemical plant that produces vinyl chloride or
PVC, you might be exposed to higher levels of this
compound than the general public. Vinyl chloride
can leach from plastic PVC bottles or containers
used to contain foods or beverages, but government
agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) have restricted the amount of vinyl chloride
that can be present in these packages. Tobacco
smoke contains low levels of vinyl chloride, so
limiting your family's exposure to cigarette or cigar
smoke may help reduce their exposure to vinyl
People who work in facilities that manufacture or
use vinyl chloride could be exposed to high levels
of this chemical. The Occupational Safety and
Health Administration (OSHA) regulates these
levels and employers must comply with these rules.
If you work in an industry that manufactures or uses
vinyl chloride, strictly adhere to the rules provided
by the safety officer and always use respirators
Is there a medical test to determine whether I have been exposed to vinyl chloride?
The results of several tests can sometimes show if
you have been exposed to vinyl chloride, depending
on the amount of your exposure and how recently it
happened. However, scientists do not know
whether these measurements can tell how much vinyl chloride you have been exposed to. These
tests are not normally available at your doctor's
office. Vinyl chloride can be measured in your
breath, but the test must be done shortly after
exposure. This test is not very helpful for
measuring very low levels of the chemical. The
amount of the major breakdown product of vinyl
chloride, thiodiglycolic acid, in the urine may give
some information about exposure. However, this
test must be done shortly after exposure and does
not reliably indicate the level of exposure. Also,
exposure to other chemicals can produce the same
breakdown products in your urine. Vinyl chloride
can bind to genetic material in your body. The
amount of this binding can be measured by
sampling your blood and other tissues. This
measurement will give information about whether
you have been exposed to vinyl chloride, but it is
not sensitive enough to determine the effects on the
genetic material resulting from exposure.
What recommendations has the federal government made to protect human health?
The federal government develops regulations and
recommendations to protect public health.
Regulations can be enforced by law. The EPA, the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
(OSHA), and the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) are some federal agencies that develop
regulations for toxic substances. Recommendations
provide valuable guidelines to protect public health,
but cannot be enforced by law. The Agency for
Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)
and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are two federal organizations
that develop recommendations for toxic substances.
Regulations and recommendations can be expressed
as "not-to-exceed" levels, that is, levels of a toxic
substance in air, water, soil, or food that do not
exceed a critical value that is usually based on
levels that affect animals; they are then adjusted to
levels that will help protect humans. Sometimes
these not-to-exceed levels differ among federal
organizations because they used different exposure
times (an 8-hour workday or a 24-hour day),
different animal studies, or other factors.
Recommendations and regulations are also updated
periodically as more information becomes available.
For the most current information, check with the
federal agency or organization that provides it.
Some regulations and recommendations for vinyl
chloride include the following:
Vinyl chloride is regulated in drinking water, food,
and air. Because it is a hazardous substance,
regulations on its disposal, packaging, and other
forms of handling also exist. EPA requires that the
amount of vinyl chloride in drinking water not
exceed 0.002 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of water
(0.002 ppm). Under the EPA's Ambient Water
Quality Criteria for the protection of human health,
a concentration of 0.025 micrograms per L (μg/L)
of water (0.025 ppb) was established for protecting
human health from water and organism ingestion
and 2.4 micrograms per L (μg/L) of water (2.4 ppb)
was determined for consumption of organisms only.
To limit intake of vinyl chloride through foods to
levels considered safe, FDA regulates the vinyl
chloride content of various plastics. These include
plastics that carry liquids and plastics that contact food. The limits for vinyl chloride content vary
depending on the nature of the plastic and its use.
EPA has established a reportable quantity for vinyl
chloride. If quantities of more than 1 pound
(0.454 kilograms) are released to the environment,
the National Response Center of the federal
government must be told immediately.
OSHA regulates levels of vinyl chloride in the
workplace. No employee may be exposed to vinyl
chloride at levels greater than 1 ppm averaged over
any 8-hour period or levels greater than 5 ppm
averaged over any period exceeding 15 minutes.
NIOSH recommends that the exposure limit (for a
time-weighted average [TWA]) for vinyl chloride in
air be the lowest reliably detectable concentration.
Workers exposed to any measurable amount of it
must wear special breathing equipment. EPA sets
emission standards for vinyl chloride and PVC
plants. The amount of vinyl chloride allowed to be
emitted varies depending on the type of production
and the discharge system used.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2006. Toxicological profile for Vinyl Chloride. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
If you have questions or concerns, please contact your community or state health or environmental quality department or:
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Human Health Sciences
4770 Buford Highway
Chamblee, GA 30341-3717
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO 888-232-6348 (TTY)
Email: Contact CDC-INFO
ATSDR can also tell you the location of occupational and environmental health clinics. These clinics specialize in recognizing, evaluating, and treating illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.