Are you growing food? Are you concerned about your health, avoiding chemicals and eating safe produce? Me too! Over the years, I’ve been asked many times whether PVC plastic (Polyvinyl Chloride) is safe and has a place in a food garden. You may have wondered too.
We live in a world filled with plastics and some are more harmful to our health and environment than others.
There are all sorts of uses gardeners find for PVC tubes including irrigation pipes, in wicking beds, worm farms, compost systems, rain gutter gardens and vertical tower planters. It’s understandable. PVC is cheap, widely available and an easy solution. It’s commonly used in landscaping, aquaponics, hydroponics, garden gloves and hoses too.
But is it safe to use around food plants?
PVC Plastic Leaches Toxic Chemicals
Based on all the research papers I’ve read, I believe it’s clear PVC is a toxic material that has no place in an organic garden – or anywhere! All plastics can leach toxic substances to some degree, given the right conditions. There are, however, safer plastics than others. See Choosing Safe Containers for Growing Food.
Even when buried in landfill, PVC is an environmental health hazard. Research reports have found PVC:
- leaches chemicals into the soil;
- contaminates ground water and air; and
- is toxic during manufacture right through to when it is disposed of.
There’s a huge number of research papers, scientific studies and credible technical reports on the dangers of PVC. If you are trying to grow a safe food garden, then you may be interested in the answers to the following questions.
How do Chemicals from PVC Leak into the Environment?
Weathering, exposure to sunlight and other factors can cause the plastic to become brittle and form microcracks, leaching micro particles into the atmosphere, soil and waterways.
How does PVC Plastic Affect Edible Plants?
What do scientific research results have to say? According to the 2016 scientific report ‘Environmental contamination with phthalates and its impact on living organisms’:
“Plants take up soil nutrients together with pollutants, including phthalates,* through their root systems. An analysis of … crops revealed the presence of phthalates in every plant organ, from the roots, through the stem, to the seeds.”
Disturbing findings indeed.
* Phthalates are a large group of chemicals that act as binding agents, make plastics flexible and are mainly used to soften PVC. Phthalates have been linked to an alarming number of health issues and diseases. These include breast cancer, ADHD, asthma, obesity, type II diabetes, autism spectrum disorders, reproductive problems and male fertility issues.
That’s not all! In a 2015 scientific study, the results showed that edible plants including vegetables, take up and accumulate phthalates* in the soil that are leached by chemicals like PVC. Toxic chemicals were found in the plant tissues of lettuce, strawberries and carrots, imposing human health risks through diet.
If you’re in any doubt, consider what the Greenpeace report ‘What’s Wrong with PVC’ states:
“Because of the persistent, bioaccumulative nature of many of the chemicals released by PVC production their effects are irreversible. They will effect not only us and our children, but our children’s children and their children. Likewise they will go on contaminating every part of the earth and poisoning wildlife for many generations.”
Seems pretty clear hey? If you still want to dig deeper, check the references at the end of this article.
What CAN you Do?
These are a few safety tips to avoid contaminating your garden with PVC.
- A recent study* by the Ecology Center on the best and worst garden hoses provides these tips and insights:
- Allow your hose to run water for about five seconds before use “since the water that’s been sitting in the hose will have the highest levels of chemicals.”
- Avoid keeping your hose in the sun. Store in the shade. “The heat from the sun can increase the leaching of chemicals into the water … let the water run cool before use.”
- Avoid drinking from the hose unless it is definitely free of phthalates. Choose a non-PVC polyurethane hose instead that is marked ‘drinking water safe’ such as Water Right. Some brands of PVC hoses contain phthalates and lead even though they are labelled ‘drinking water safe’.
- If you use plastic-based garden gloves, you may want to consider an environmentally and healthier alternative like gloves made from bamboo.
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- Avoid purchasing plastics. Reduce your own consumption and choose safer and more environmentally alternatives instead. PVC will continue poisoning the environment, even if it is recycled. We can all do our bit to reduce the impact.
- Avoid using pesticides as many of these harmful chemical products contain phthalates.
- It’s much safer to eat certified organic produce. Animals that have been exposed to pesticide-treated feeds are not permitted in organic dairy and meat products.
* Read the Garden Hose Report Summary.
Are there Alternatives to PVC in your Garden?
There are a variety of safer options, depending on the use you have in mind. You may be able to substitute PVC with some of these materials instead: sustainable timber, bamboo, clay pipes, cardboard, cast iron, steel, concrete vitrified clay, and plastics such as HDPE (high-density polyethylene) #5.
I don’t recommend using PVC pipes in worm farms, strawberry towers or any garden application relating to food.
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PVC – The Bottom Line
As you can see, PVC has some major impacts in terms of toxicity. Personally, I keep PVC well away from my garden and try to use natural materials wherever possible to avoid contaminating my soil and food. My suggestion is to apply the ‘Precautionary Principle’ and err on the side of caution when it comes to growing edibles.
I hope this helps provide some food for thought!
Dig Deeper … References
Want to learn more about this topic? Then check the peer-reviewed literature in the references section of some of these articles for more in-depth research.
- ‘Environmental Contamination with Phthalates and its Impact on Living Organisms’ – 2016 Research Study
- Uptake and Metabolism of Phthalate Esters by Edible Plants – 2015 Research Study
- Garden Hose Report and Study Findings – Eco Center Healthy Stuff 2016
- What’s Wrong with PVC Report – The science behind a phase-out of polyvinyl chloride plastics – Greenpeace Study UK 1997
- ‘Phthalates are everywhere, and the health risks are worrying. How bad are they really?’ – The Guardian article 10 Feb 2015
- Organic Produce Guidelines – PBS Frontline
- Common Types of Plastic – Life Without Plastic
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