Vinyl chloride is a cancer-causing toxic chemical that’s soluble in water at normal room temperature. Even drinking low levels of vinyl chloride over a progressive time period may increase your risk of cancer and other health problems.
In this glossary, we’ve compiled the most important information that you should know about vinyl chloride in tap water, including what it is, how it enters a water supply, and its potential health effects.
📌 Key Takeaways:
- Vinyl chloride is a colorless gas with a sweet odor, which is often handled in liquid form.
- This toxic chemical enters water supplies as a result of industrial emissions, agricultural runoff, other means of air pollution, chemical leaks and spills, and from some household cleaning products.
- Vinyl chloride exposure over a long period of time has harmful human health effects, including an increased risk of cancer.
Table of Contents
- ❔ What Is Vinyl Chloride?
- 🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Vinyl Chloride?
- 🚰 How Does Vinyl Chloride Get Into Drinking Water?
- 📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Vinyl Chloride in Drinking Water?
- 🔎 How Can I Tell if Vinyl Chloride is in My Drinking Water?
- 👩🏽⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Vinyl Chloride in Drinking Water?
- ⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Vinyl Chloride?
- 📝 Where Can I Get More Information?
❔ What Is Vinyl Chloride?
Vinyl chloride monomer is an unstable, colorless gas that burns easily and has a sweet smell. It’s often transported and handled as a liquid.
Vinyl chloride gas isn’t naturally occurring and is artificially produced as a byproduct when substances like tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, and trichloroethane break down.
The most common use of vinyl chloride is in the making of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is used in packaging materials, wire, cable coatings, pipes, and other plastic products.
There are a few other uses of vinyl chloride, including to make ethylene, acrylic acid, and propylene. It’s also a valuable solvent in chemicals that are used to make various types of drugs in the pharmaceutical industry.
|In Water As||C2H3Cl|
|Sources||Industrial discharge from plants
Chemical spills and leaks
Leaching from PVC pipes
Contaminant Levels (MCLs)
|US EPA: 2 ppb
EWG Health Guideline: 0.05 ppb
|Potential Health Risks||Increased risk of developing liver cancer
Liver disease risk
Muscle and joint pain
|Treatments||Activated Carbon Filters
🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Vinyl Chloride?
As well as liver cancer, vinyl chloride may also cause other problems in the liver, including liver disease. Even at low levels, this chemical may cause damaging liver changes.
Breathing in vinyl chloride may cause you to feel drowsy or dizzy, and you may pass out.
Exposure to very high levels of vinyl chloride (usually only caused by working in facilities that use this chemical in manufacturing processes) may cause “vinyl chloride disease”, which is known to cause muscle and joint pain, Raynaud’s disease (numb fingers in the cold), skin changes, and stiffness of the hands.
The good news is that the CDC believes the levels of vinyl chloride in the environment to be too low to cause health effects.
However, if you’re concerned about vinyl chloride exposure and you don’t even want to drink low levels of this chemical in your water, you’re certainly not alone.
Many sources say that even low levels of vinyl chloride in tap water may be dangerous if you’re exposed to them over a long period of time.
🚰 How Does Vinyl Chloride Get Into Drinking Water?
There are a few different ways that vinyl chloride can enter a water supply that’s used for drinking:
- Through agricultural runoff – Some agricultural herbicides contain vinyl chloride, which enters water supplies due to surface runoff.
- From pipe leaching – Main polyvinyl chloride (PVC) water pipes made before 1977 have high concentrations of vinyl chloride monomer and may leach this chemical into your drinking water.
- Through industrial emissions – Vinyl chloride is used in a number of industrial processes, and may be released into the air or the water as a result.
- From household cleaning products – Some household cleaning products contain vinyl chloride, and incorrect use or disposal of these products could cause drinking water contamination.
- From chemical leaks and spills – Accidents and improper preparation can lead to leaks and spills of vinyl chloride, as we saw recently when a train carrying vinyl chloride in Ohio derailed and released toxic substances into the environment.
- From car exhausts – Cars and other road vehicles release chemicals into the air that may eventually end up as vinyl chloride in water.
Once vinyl chloride enters a natural water source that supplies a public water system, the water is carried into a treatment plant, where certain impurities are removed. At this point, vinyl chloride may be reduced, but is rarely removed entirely.
So, if vinyl chloride enters the water source that supplies your city, there’s a good chance that it leaves your faucet in the water that fills your glass.
📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Vinyl Chloride in Drinking Water?
Water treatment facilities must monitor levels of vinyl chloride in tap water and reduce the concentration of this volatile chemical if it’s found at levels above the MCL (Maximum Contaminant Level) set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
📌 The EPA MCL for vinyl chloride is 0.002 milligrams per liter (mg/L), or 2 parts per billion (PPB), based on research on this contaminant’s health effects. That means the EPA believes that vinyl chloride may only cause health effects at concentrations higher than 0.002 mg/L.
The EPA regulation for vinyl chloride was established in 1989, and public water systems must test samples of their treated water to ensure that vinyl chloride levels are not present above the MCL.
If vinyl chloride levels in the water exceed 2 PPB, the water utility must make the public aware of the issue. That means you should – in theory – be aware of vinyl chloride contamination in your water.
🔎 How Can I Tell if Vinyl Chloride is in My Drinking Water?
You can’t see, taste, or smell vinyl chloride when it’s dissolved in your water, which means it’s difficult to detect without conducting a water test.
There are several different ways to determine your water’s vinyl chloride content:
Check Your Water Quality Report
The easiest way to learn whether or not your water contains vinyl chloride is to check your most recent Water Quality Report.
Your water utility should release a Report once a year that displays the contaminants detected in your drinking water based on routine testing.
If vinyl chloride is in your water, it should be listed in the Report.
Get A Laboratory Test
Vinyl chloride isn’t the kind of common contaminant that’s easy to test for with an at-home DIY test kit.
If you want to find out exactly how much of this contaminant is present in your water when it reaches your home, you’ll need to buy a laboratory water test.
There are lab tests that detect just vinyl chloride, and there are tests that detect a range of VOCs, including this chemical.
👩🏽⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Vinyl Chloride in Drinking Water?
There are a few different ways you can protect your family from vinyl chloride in drinking water.
Express Your Concerns Publicly
If vinyl chloride has been detected in your local water supply and your water utility is looking the other way, make your voice heard.
There’s a high likelihood that you’re not the only person in your area who feels concerned about the health effects of this toxic chemical. The more people who express their concerns publicly, the higher the likelihood that your water utility will agree to take new protective measures to limit exposure to vinyl chloride locally and protect the public water supplies.
You could call or email your water utility, start a Facebook group, or ask to speak at your next local council meeting.
Switch To Bottled Water
While you’re waiting for a response from your public water system, consider switching to bottled water.
Since the EPA believes that low levels of vinyl chloride aren’t harmful, this isn’t absolutely necessary unless your water has high concentrations of this chemical.
However, you might still prefer to drink filtered bottled water while you consider long-term solutions for your own drinking water supply.
Install A Water Treatment System
If you’re worried about chronic exposure to vinyl chloride, and what future health effects might be discovered, the best solution is to install a water treatment system in your home.
There are a few water filters that work well to reduce vinyl chloride in tap water:
- Activated carbon filters – Use adsorption to grab onto chemical contaminants, including vinyl chloride.
- Reverse osmosis systems – Use membrane separation to reduce up to 99.99% of total dissolved solids and chemicals, including vinyl chloride.
- Water distillers – Use evaporation and condensation to distill water, leaving nearly all impurities (including vinyl chloride) behind in the boiling chamber.
👨🔧 We’ve looked at these treatment options in more detail in our guide on how to remove vinyl chloride from tap water.
Note that boiling water is also an effective way to reduce some VOCs, including vinyl chloride, but it doesn’t guarantee complete removal, so it’s not an ideal long-term solution.
⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Vinyl Chloride?
You may also be exposed to vinyl chloride in the following ways:
- Through inhalation. Regions with heavy industrial activity may be exposed to vinyl chloride from breathing contaminated air.
- In certain occupations. Employees working at facilities that use this chemical in production processes have a high likelihood of breathing vinyl chloride.
- In tobacco smoke. Tobacco smoke contains vinyl chloride, so you may get exposure to vinyl chloride from living in close quarters with a tobacco smoker.
- Through ingestion. Since vinyl chloride is used in food packaging materials, you might be exposed to this chemical in certain foods that are packaged using vinyl chloride. This is because some of the vinyl chloride may migrate into the food during storage.