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From the mailbag: vinyl and melamine

Posted by ReneeP at Oct 26, 2009 09:45 AM |

Dr. Renee answers these questions: "I'm considering a vinyl patio room for my home daycare, but I'm not sure vinyl is a safe product. I'm also wondering if melamine is a good choice for children's dishes."

Got a question for OEC? Drop a line and we'll do our best to find an answer.

"I'm considering a vinyl patio room for my home daycare, but I'm not sure vinyl is a safe product and wouldn't negatively affect air quality. I'm also wondering if melamine is a good choice for children's dishes."

Erin, Portland


Hi Erin, below are some answers that I hope answer your questions/concerns.


PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic, commonly referred to as vinyl, is found in many home items from shower curtains to flooring to raincoats and school supplies. Additives give PVC a glossy shine and make it flexible. PVC and the chemicals applied to it can harm human health and the environment through the material's entire life cycle, at the factory, in our homes, and in the trash.  Our bodies are contaminated with the chemicals released from PVC  including phthalates and heavy metals, which may pose irreversible life-long health threats. When produced or burned, PVC plastic releases dioxins, a group of the most potent synthetic chemicals ever tested.  Dioxins can cause cancer and harm the immune and reproductive systems.

New Car or Shower Curtain Smell?  The Smell of PVC

PVC is useless without the addition of a plethora of toxic additives, which can make the PVC product itself harmful to consumers. These chemicals can evaporate or leach out of PVC, posing risks to children and consumers (off-gassing). New car smell?  New shower curtain smell? That’s the smell of poisonous chemicals off-gassing from the PVC. One of the most common toxic additives is DEHP, a phthalate that is a suspected carcinogen and reproductive toxicant readily found in numerous PVC products.  Children can be exposed to phthalates by chewing on vinyl toys. One EPA study found that vinyl shower curtains can cause elevated levels of dangerous air toxins, which can persist for more than a month.

A Contaminant to Recycling

PVC cannot be effectively recycled due to the many different toxic additives used to soften or stabilize PVC, which can contaminate the recycling batch.  Most consumers do not know that a "3" in the recycle symbol indicates that the plastic is made of PVC, and therefore recycling those products could inadvertently render thousands of potentially recycled containers useless. 

Most consumers do not know that a "3" in the recycle symbol indicates that the plastic is made of PVC, and therefore recycling those products could inadvertently render thousands of potentially recycled containers useless.

In fact just one PVC bottle can contaminate a recycling load of 100,000 PET bottles. Recycling of PVC is negligible, with estimates ranging from 0.1% to 3% of postconsumer PVC waste being recycled.

Safer, Healthier Alternatives are Readily Available

The good news is that safer, cost-effective, alternatives to PVC are readily available for virtually every use.  From safer plastics, to bio-based materials, there is a growing market replacing hazardous PVC products.  A growing list of companies have committed to phase out PVC products and switch to safer, healthier products.  Some of these companies include Bath and Body Works, Honda, Ikea , Johnson and Johnson, Microsoft, Nike, Toyota, Victoria's Secret, and Wal-Mart. You can help build consumer demand for safer, healthier products by avoiding the purchase of PVC.  One way to be sure if the packaging of a product is made from PVC is to look for the number “3” inside or the letter “V” underneath the universal recycling symbol.  In addition, soft flexible plastic products that are made with PVC often have a distinct odor, such as vinyl shower curtains. 

For more information, following this link to download a PVC guide

The Melamine Question:

Melamine; aka Melmac, Melamine-Formaldehyde, Melamine resin

DO NOT MICROWAVE!!  Nobody really knows what happens to melamine when it is microwaved. The chemical components could become friable (easily crumbled or reduced to powder; crumbly); the compounds may partially
dissolve -- so please don't microwave.

If you do wash in the dishwasher, do not use the sanitation cycle (which can approach 200 plus degrees Fahrenheit).  Temperatures above 130 degrees F.

Best option:  Handwashing. 

Melamine has a melting point of about 130 degrees Fahrenheit. So don't place it in direct heat.  Or on direct heating sources. Another option is Corelle dishware.

Potential issues with Melamine:

Melamine resin is the product of the chemicals formaldehyde and melamine, and while, to my knowledge, no extensive (or conclusive) testing has been done to ascertain the potential risks of the sustained use of melamine resin dinnerware and utensils, there is some level of questionability in its use. We know that formaldehyde is a carcinogen, and based on last year’s animal feed disaster, in which food contaminated with melamine (the chemical) was responsible for the death of countless pets, it seems likely that this chemical is not so great for humans either. But, for many plastics, while toxic substances may be used to produce a plastic, these substances are harmless when trapped within the structure of the hardened plastic.

However, recent concerns about polycarbonates stem from research that suggests that the toxic chemical used to make those plastics, bisphenol-A, may leach out of the plastic into the foods stored inside. And reports in 2005 about the hazards of Teflon and plastic linings for grease-proof packaging were related to the possibility of these plastics releasing their dangerous constituent chemical perfluorooctanoic acid. In both cases, it seems that the most risk arises from heating the plastics in question—placing a baby bottle in boiling water or in a microwave to warm it, goods that are canned and sealed very hot, which therefore heat plastic can linings, heating non-stick pans to high temperatures, etc. So, it seems, in the case of melamine resin, since it cannot be microwaved or directly heated, the greatest risk would be not with tableware but with kitchen utensils—spoons and spatulas—used in hot applications.

Dishes made out of melamine should get retired if they have any cracks, fissures, or have been compromised in a microwave. There's a chance of ingestion through fissured plates- inspect them regularly. Retiring them is a challenge. Because melamine is a thermoset plastic, melamine resin is difficult to recycle. Check your local efforts to see if you can recycle retired melamine in your area.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if any of this information needs clarification or if you need additional resources.



Leaching needs to be tested

Posted by Cara at Nov 24, 2009 04:30 PM
Careful with how you explain this: "melamine" dishes actually consist of a polymer that is synthesized from the chemicals melamine and formaldehyde. Once polymerized, the solid material is stable and fundamentally different from either of its precursors (melamine and formaldehyde). Ideally, there should not be any formaldehyde or melamine remaining in the finished plastic -- but there certainly could be. Polymers often contain residual precursor molecules. And if they do, those molecules are not permanently "trapped." For the case of "melamine" dishes, someone needs to test for the presence of the chemicals formaldehyde and melamine and their leaching potential.


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