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ToxFAQs™ for Vinyl Chloride
This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about vinyl chloride. For more information, you may call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-888-422-8737. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.
Exposure to vinyl chloride occurs mainly in the workplace. Breathing high levels of vinyl chloride for short periods of time can cause dizziness, sleepiness, unconsciousness, and at extremely high levels can cause death. Breathing vinyl chloride for long periods of time can result in permanent liver damage, immune reactions, nerve damage, and liver cancer. This substance has been found in at least 616 of the 1,662 National Priority List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is vinyl chloride?
Vinyl chloride is a colorless gas. It burns easily and it is not stable at high temperatures. It has a mild, sweet odor. It is a manufactured substance that does not occur naturally. It can be formed when other substances such as trichloroethane, trichloroethylene, and tetrachloroethylene are broken down. Vinyl chloride is used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC is used to make a variety of plastic products, including pipes, wire and cable coatings, and packaging materials.
Vinyl chloride is also known as chloroethene, chloroethylene, and ethylene monochloride.
What happens to vinyl chloride when it enters the environment?
- Liquid vinyl chloride evaporates easily. Vinyl chloride in water or soil evaporates rapidly if it is near the surface.
- Vinyl chloride in the air breaks down in a few days to other substances, some of which can be harmful.
- Small amounts of vinyl chloride can dissolve in water.
- Vinyl chloride is unlikely to build up in plants or animals that you might eat.
How might I be exposed to vinyl chloride?
- Breathing vinyl chloride that has been released from plastics industries, hazardous waste sites, and landfills.
- Breathing vinyl chloride in air or during contact with your skin or eyes in the workplace.
- Drinking water from contaminated wells.
How can vinyl chloride affect my health?
Breathing high levels of vinyl chloride can cause you to feel dizzy or sleepy. Breathing very high levels can cause you to pass out, and breathing extremely high levels can cause death.
Some people who have breathed vinyl chloride for several years have changes in the structure of their livers. People are more likely to develop these changes if they breathe high levels of vinyl chloride. Some people who work with vinyl chloride have nerve damage and develop immune reactions. The lowest levels that produce liver changes, nerve damage, and immune reaction in people are not known. Some workers exposed to very high levels of vinyl chloride have problems with the blood flow in their hands. Their fingers turn white and hurt when they go into the cold.
The effects of drinking high levels of vinyl chloride are unknown. If you spill vinyl chloride on your skin, it will cause numbness, redness, and blisters.
Animal studies have shown that long-term exposure to vinyl chloride can damage the sperm and testes.
How likely is vinyl chloride to cause cancer?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined that vinyl chloride is a known carcinogen. Studies in workers who have breathed vinyl chloride over many years showed an increased risk of liver, brain, lung cancer, and some cancers of the blood have also been observed in workers.
How can vinyl chloride affect children?
It has not been proven that vinyl chloride causes birth defects in humans, but studies in animals suggest that vinyl chloride might affect growth and development. Animal studies also suggest that infants and young children might be more susceptible than adults to vinyl chloride-induced cancer.
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to vinyl chloride?
Tobacco smoke contains low levels of vinyl chloride, so limiting your family's exposure to cigarette or cigar smoke may help reduce their exposure to vinyl chloride.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to vinyl chloride?
The results of several tests can sometimes show if you have been exposed to vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride can be measured in your breath, but the test must be done shortly after exposure. This is not helpful for measuring very low levels of vinyl chloride.
The amount of the major breakdown product of vinyl chloride, thiodiglycolic acid, in the urine may give some information about exposure. However, this test must be done shortly after exposure and does not reliably indicate the level of exposure.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
Vinyl chloride is regulated in drinking water, food, and air. The EPA requires that the amount of vinyl chloride in drinking water not exceed 0.002 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of water.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set a limit of 1 part vinyl chloride per 1 million parts of air (1 ppm) in the workplace.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the vinyl chloride content of various plastics. These include plastics that carry liquids and plastics that contact food. The limits for vinyl chloride content vary depending on the nature of the plastic and its use.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2006. Toxicological Profile for Vinyl Chloride. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
If you have questions or concerns, please contact your community or state health or environmental quality department or:
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Human Health Sciences
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-57
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO · 888-232-6348 (TTY)
ATSDR can also tell you the location of occupational and environmental health clinics. These clinics specialize in recognizing, evaluating, and treating illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.
Information line and technical assistance:
To order toxicological profiles, contact:
National Technical Information Service
5285 Port Royal Road
Springfield, VA 22161
Phone: 800-553-6847 or 703-605-6000
Some PDF files may be electronic conversions from paper copy or other electronic ASCII text files. This conversion may have resulted in character translation or format errors. Users are referred to the original paper copy of the toxicological profile for the official text, figures, and tables. Original paper copies can be obtained via the directions on the toxicological profile home page, which also contains other important information about the profiles.
The information contained here was correct at the time of publication. Please check with the appropriate agency for any changes to the regulations or guidelines cited.
- Page last reviewed: March 3, 2011
- Page last updated: October 13, 2011
- Content source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry