Phthalates commonly are used in vinyl building materials like flooring and wall coverings to make them flexible, safe, and durable. Flexible vinyl products made with phthalates can reduce the environmental footprint of a building. From energy-efficient roofing, to flexible adhesives and sealants, to durable interior finishes, phthalates are used in building and construction products to make materials and surfaces last longer and to make them easier to maintain. Because flexible vinyl made with phthalates lasts longer than vinyl alternatives, less energy and other resources are needed to manufacture and install it. In fact, according to industry sources, flexible vinyl takes less energy to produce than many competing products. Flexible vinyl also has unique anti-microbial properties that are critical to fighting germs in hospitals and other healthcare facilities.
Phthalates used to make vinyl flexible and durable are tightly bound in the structure of the material. This fact, together with the lower vapor pressure of the phthalates typically used in building applications, contributes to the long service life of flexible vinyl materials. Phthalates are specifically chosen as plasticizers because they resist extraction, evaporation and migration.
Some recent suggestions that phthalates could present a health concern, when used in building materials, are not supported by the existing science. Phthalate safety has been studied for several decades and biomonitoring data, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exists for the last decade. Phthalates are widely used and, as expected, metabolites of several of the most common phthalates are found in most of the people measured, however, the detected levels are well-below those deemed to be safe by regulatory authorities in the U.S. and Europe. These safe levels are based on the results of many years of laboratory testing. Even when scientists hypothesize extreme exposures from phthalates in building products, the predicted exposure levels are hundreds or thousands of times below the safe level established by regulatory authorities.
The U.S. Green Business Council (USGBC) has spent years studying the environmental impacts of vinyl building products. Their findings, released in February 2007, concluded that vinyl generally has no greater environmental impact than other building products—and in some cases has less impact. Despite this past conclusion, USGBC recently added a pilot credit to the library for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program that would encourage building designers to avoid the use of products containing phthalates. This pilot credit represents a significant departure from USGBC’s historic focus on improving performance through a building’s entire life cycle. USGBC has not determined that exposure to extremely low levels of phthalates from their use in building products presents a health concern, however, nor has it evaluated the safety and performance of building products that don’t contain phthalates. Instead, the Council is asking building project teams to submit data to assist USGBC in evaluating these parameters. These data are not expected to be available for some time. In the meantime, the phthalate manufacturers encourage building teams to provide USGBC with safety and performance data necessary to conduct an objective evaluation of the merits of the pilot credit.