When looking for new blinds, how do we begin our research? It’s likely that we start googling for the cheapest options, because, really, why should we spend a lot on something that is more functional than decorative? Blinds tend to go unnoticed when someone walks into a room because they are so ubiquitous and they rarely say much about the resident’s personality. The fact that landlords often include blinds as a furnishing that comes with a residence, similar to some appliances or cabinetry, leads us to take them for granted.
If we were to search Home Depot’s website for inexpensive blinds, let’s say no more than $50, we would find 3 wood, 18 faux wood, and 28 aluminum blind options. This pales in comparison with the 109 vinyl blinds that are available, many of which are significantly less expensive than the maximum price that we determined. So, what are these super-accessible blinds made of?
That question is actually very difficult to answer. If we simply google, “What are vinyl blinds made of,” we get a variety of answers that discuss all types of blinds and, mostly, just “vinyl blinds are vinyl.” This is a completely unhelpful to those of us wondering what we will bring into our homes if we buy the attractively-cheap $7 blinds from Home Depot. If the commonly-reported odor produced by vinyl blinds upon installation does not deter you, you may choose to continue googling and learn about the health scandal in the late 1990s where children were getting lead poisoning from this product.
In 1996, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission released an announcement explaining that “over time the plastic deteriorates from exposure to sunlight and heat to form lead dust on the surface of the blind.” The blinds that created this dust were ones imported from countries such as China, Taiwan, and Mexico, where lead paint regulations had not been put in place. Although the announcement pointed out a “lead poisoning hazard for young children” because they were more likely to ingest the lead dust from touching the blinds and later putting their hands in their mouths, this also posed a risk for adults and older children. The lead was said to have been used to “stabilize the plastic in the blinds.” There was a major recall of these blinds following this discovery. If this household object’s material and chemical components can cause harm on our loved ones, why are we not more concerned about this stuff?
The truth is, we aren’t concerned because we assume that the products on our shelves, or available online for purchase, are mandated to pass certain safety examinations. But this is simply not the case. The only safety initiatives for blinds have to do with their cords, which can cause accidental strangulation for small children and pets due to their easy accessibility. This is obviously horrifying, and rightfully has people advocating for the industry to continue making product changes. There are no other product safety regulations in place for blinds, however, and there is no mandate to at least list the material components of these products.
Therefore, there are extremely limited vinyl blinds, if any, with Material Safety Data Sheets that thoroughly explain the material make-up of synthetic blinds. Home Depot’s website’s typical format consists of a “Product Overview” along with installation and measurement guides and uses general terms like “vinyl” and PVC” interchangeably under the “Materials” category. Otherwise, after further research, we will only find 2 vinyl blinds that are more precise in their labeling. Bed, Bath, and Beyond has an option that is described as 90% PVC, 5% percent polyester, and 5% metal. Walmart’s Mainstay brand offers blinds that are “crafted of 100-percent PVC.” So, let’s take a deep dive into the world of Polyvinyl Chloride — PVC.
As the story goes, Polyvinyl Chloride was discovered on accident by two different scientists in the mid-1800s as a white solid that resulted from exposing vinyl chloride gas to sunlight. The first PVC patent came along in 1913, but was not used to make products until the American company BF Goodrich was looking for a synthetic option to replace natural rubber. This occurred, however, just as the Great Depression came about, so PVC did not see its heyday until its military use in World War II and then the 1950s.
The video above includes a succinct explanation of the PVC-making process, presented by BF Goodrich. It concludes by saying that plasticized PVC created “new plants, new jobs, and a vast array of new products which contribute to the safety, comfort, and the beauty of our daily lives.” While the age of this film might lead us to think that this is an antiquated way of thinking, the truth is that chemicals are still “innocent until proven guilty” to this day. Today, this mentality of employing plastics with reckless abandon continues.
Consumers who purchase PVC products are told that, while exposure levels to harmful chemicals can be high for those who work at PVC plants, they are quite low to the average person. The exposure that industry workers receive have been high enough to cause significant cancer outbreaks and have classically been covered up by the chemical industry. Yep, the same PVC that we often use for our pipes originates in plants that are teeming with many cases of an uncommon brain cancer. This fact that should alarm us and encourage us to do further research on the ways we come into contact with PVC.
In a report almost two decades ago, the Environmental Protection Agency classified vinyl chloride as a “Group A, human carcinogen,” but PVC remains in our household products. The EPA states that vinyl chloride can leach into our drinking water from contact with PVC pipes as well as become airborne from off gassing of new plastics inside a new car. Perhaps it is unlikely that we will experience acute exposure to vinyl chloride like industry workers, which is defined as a large exposure for a significant period of time, but we are subject to chronic exposure with so many plastics in our daily lives. This is known to have significant negative health effects as well, including liver damage.
Of course, there is a large amount misinformation surrounding the topic because there are so many areas of our lives that use PVC products. Even equipment employed in health care facilities tends to be made of this plastic that has been proven harmful. Take a look at the video below to see how the PVC industry has been attempting to convince concerned hospital patients otherwise.
PVC: Indoor Air
Let’s go back to window blinds. What information do we have about PVC’s use in interior furnishings? Although there are no scientific studies available that are specifically examining vinyl blinds, PVC is employed in other capacities inside our buildings and this can help us understand how it holds up in those conditions.
Typically, the studies involve testing dust samples for di-ethylhexyl phthalate, or DEHP, which is a plasticizer used in the production of PVC. In addition to being connected with endocrine disruption, a study found that when DEHP is manifested in particulate matter like house dust, it poses a high risk because particulates do not travel through the respiratory tract very easily. According to the publication, this can cause inflammation, causing asthmatic effects.
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health yielded an overwhelmingly positive correlation between plasticizers from PVC wall materials and respiratory tract symptoms like wheezing, coughing, and phlegm in children. The study was conducted across 2553 children between the ages of one and seven years old. It was learned that the majority of the children with symptoms in their lower respiratory tract lived in the homes with plastic wall materials. It was also learned that when the PVC-walled homes had a higher ventilation rate, the house tended to have fewer children suffering from these symptoms. This is a rule of thumb that we can apply to our homes in general: indoor air quality is typically improved via ventilation.
In a study conducted in Sweden, it was learned that 99.1-percent of the studied children’s bedrooms contained settled dust with DEHP in concentrations that are higher than the limit of detection, which was 40 ppm. In the cases of houses that were built before the year 1960, DEHP levels were significantly higher than younger homes. Researchers chalked this up to the fact that these PVC home products were likely emitting DEHP at a higher rate due to degradation.
Also in Sweden, nursing homes were studied to understand the potential connection between asthmatic symptoms and indoor humidity. It turns out that the condensation in the concrete floor slabs of these geriatric hospitals had caused degradation in the PVC coatings and adhesives, which in turn emitted DEHP. The hospitals with high levels of the plasticizer tended to have higher levels of symptoms like wheezing and coughing. This analysis demonstrated that PVC can degrade with the mere introduction of moisture, not simply due to age. This is particularly relevant for window blinds because of the likelihood of the material’s exposure to humidity from the window being opened or proximity to the condensation from an air conditioning unit, both of which are typical uses.
In a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, the subjects were exposed to PVC products that were degraded in a chamber and, while there was a clear direct correlation between level of exposure to DEHP and the level in the subject’s breath, the discomfort from the inhalation of these chemicals was not revealed until the morning after the completion of the challenge. The higher the level of the DEHP in the chamber, the higher the level in the respiratory tract of the subject, but the asthmatic reactions took time to emerge. This study is a more controlled example of the correlation between degrading PVC and a negative impact on the respiratory tract because it isolates the emitting material and completely controls the exposure of the subjects. The fact that the asthmatic reactions took time to emerge might explain why it is harder to immediately associate breathing problems with indoor air quality.
A particularly compelling study involves an office space with 150 employees that is studied before and after a renovation. Many of these employees had reported respiratory problems and eight had been diagnosed with adult-onset asthma within the last four years. There were DEHP emissions detected in samples of the indoor air and the floor. The various floor layers, which included degrading PVC products, were removed and the concrete slab, which had absorbed some of the volatile organic compounds from the flooring, had to be thoroughly treated. After the renovation, the DEHP levels were measured much lower and the asthmatic symptoms of employees paralleled this. Some of the employees with asthma even saw a lessened need for medication. This publication is intriguing because it clearly shows a correlation between the presence of degrading PVC and user health.
Degrading PVC’s connection with asthma is especially concerning because asthma is increasingly common today. Since we spend 90% of our lives in indoor environments, it appears that these pollutants have a much higher chance of getting to us. Below is an infographic that explains the prevalence of allergies and asthma in the United States.
PVC: What to Do
Now that we are absolutely paranoid about every breath that we take while indoors, what should we do?
Firstly, we should do everything possible to avoid purchasing vinyl blinds, of course!
A word of caution: don’t be fooled by the word “green” when looking for a PVC-free alternative for your blinds! For example, GreenGuard, which grants certifications for building products and interior finishes does not include permissible levels of DEHP in its list of regulated chemicals. In other words, a PVC flooring, wall surface, or window treatment can successfully get certified and put people at risk of developing the afore-mentioned asthma or asthmatic symptoms.
Window-blind-industry-leading companies like Hunter Douglas undergo GreenGuard’s certification. Many vendors that are often recommended in the online anti-PVC dialogue as “green” alternatives are also ineffectively avoiding the plastic. Blinds Chalet and EarthShade tend to be favorites, but both list options that include PVC or vinyl. This can be easily missed in the shopping process, so vigilance is necessary.
Cradle to Cradle’s certification, however, includes polyvinyl chloride on its list of banned chemicals. Thus, the blinds that are recommended tend to be pure polyester. It seems that the section of the window blind industry that is moving away from plastics is typically employing polyester as an alternative.
If the notion of polyester blinds is not appealing to you, perhaps you prefer wooden blinds. Wood window blinds, not to be confused with faux wood blinds, are made up of painted basswood slats and are, therefore, a better option than vinyl. However, it appears that the conventional wisdom regarding faux wood blinds is that these are really just PVC blinds that have been thickened and have had grooves carved into the surfaces to emulate wood. It is difficult to figure out whether this is true, of course, because there is no material disclosure requirement for these products.
Secondly, monitor the ventilation, humidity, and dust in your home.
While some of us might be unable to control the wall, floor, and window blind materials of our dwellings because they lie under the jurisdiction of a landlord, there are still some basic things we can do to mitigate exposures to DEHP. We can become more aware of the ventilation, humidity, and dust levels of our homes. The higher the ventilation rate, the lower the concentrations of DEHP because the chemical has the ability to exit the indoor environment. The higher the humidity, the higher the amount of PVC material degradation. And, of course, the lower the levels of dust, the lower the exposure to allergens that can irritate respiration altogether.
Please remember that, while we focused on building materials and accessories here, our lives are saturated with PVC products. This plastic is used for kids’ toys, in personal care products, in our pipes, and a variety of other applications. Here is a helpful handout offered by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, but created by the “Zero Breast Cancer” organization, that contains quick facts about protecting your family against DEHP from PVC and other phthalates. But, the truth is, we shouldn’t need to rely on cheat sheets that were created by concerned citizens to inform us of the made-made poisons in our world. Assuming that the consumer has the know-how to sift through items that contain certain chemicals, particularly items that have no labeling requirements, is short of absurd. If we do not advocate for transparency in the disclosure of chemicals contained in our products, we will continue to make uninformed decisions and continue to unknowingly poison ourselves and our families.