Margie Kelly

Vinyl (or PVC) is the worst plastic from an environmental and public health perspective. It is also the most ubiquitous plastic, used in everything from shower curtains, toys, building materials like wall coverings and exterior siding, automobiles, medical devices, and more.

What makes vinyl especially problematic are the chemical additives mixed in to make it flexible, moldable, and long lasting, including phthalates and lead stabilizers. Phthalates are suspected carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting chemicals and we all know the problems with lead. These chemical additives don’t stay in the vinyl product; phthalates are especially likely to evaporate, creating that unique smell that comes from a vinyl shower curtain.

Ever since my husband, Joe, wrote a book called Pandora’s Poison about the environmental perils of the chemical, we’ve gone out of our way to absolutely avoid vinyl.

For example, after our son was born (and then again when our daughter arrived on the scene a few years later), we were very clear that we strongly preferred that our family and friends not give our children any vinyl products. Did we offend people (like my mother) with this request? Probably, but we hoped our book-length informed stand against such a toxic product would move them from annoyance to acceptance.

Years later, when we built our home, we were committed to making it PVC-free. I still remember the sticker shock when I saw how much the windows were going to cost. But we did it anyway.

Though my kids routinely refer to stuff made from vinyl as “junk,” they will occasionally dream of owning something made of vinyl. While shopping for school supplies this year, my daughter begged me for the “cool” turquoise-colored vinyl calculator. “Absolutely not,” I said. “It’s vinyl, it’s bad for the environment and the workers who made it.” That’s when she looked at me and said, “So why do you get to have a vinyl yoga ball?”

And I was busted.

The truth is that I wasn’t paying close enough attention when I bought the vinyl yoga ball. I thought it would be rubber, like the ones at my gym. But no, it’s a big, round red ball of vinyl, the number one product non-grata in my home. I use it to exercise at home and I frequently sit on it as a chair while working. It’s much more comfortable than the dining room chair I usually sit on, and then there’s the added benefit that I feel like I’m improving my balance just by sitting on it, like it really might be good for me.

I’d be happy to give up the ball and find another chair solution, but the truth is that there’s no good way to get rid of the red vinyl ball. I could give it away, but that would really just be turning my problem into someone else’s problem. I believe that giving away the stuff in my house I know is toxic is unethical and irresponsible. And I can’t recycle it because vinyl isn’t recyclable and it never breaks down.

I feel stuck in a toxic relationship with the vinyl ball but I’m determined to find a way to get back to a vinyl-free life. Maybe I’ll send the ball back to the maker or one of the chemical manufacturers of PVC with a message to stop making toxic junk! Perhaps I’ll ship it off to Washington, DC, to persuade Congress to fix the broken chemical system that allows toxic products to end up in our homes and places of work. Or maybe I’ll just have to live with the ball forever, like a link on the chain of Marley’s ghost.

Do you feel trapped in a toxic relationship with a product? Or have you broken free from a toxic relationship that you want to tell us about? Please send your stories to the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign so we can spread the word, raise awareness, and get Congress to change the law that allows toxic chemicals to be put on the market without first being proven safe.