Photograph of - damaged vinyl siding Health Effects of Exposure to General "Plastic" Odors or "Vinyl" Odors in the Home

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Vinyl chloride & plastic odor exposure health effects: This article (part 3) discusses possible health effects of exposure to plastic or vinyl odors and outgassing in building interiors and gives references to more scholarly information sources. This article also discussed the health hazards from general exposure to burned plastics or plastic odors.

To improve clarity and provide public information we include here information from several US government sources including the US EPA and the US ATSDR, Department of health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic substances and Disease Registry.

Our page top photo shows our client pointing to a window where occupants suspected an unpleasant "plastic" odor was originating. But notice that this is an older wooden sash. Also notice those vinyl plastic curtains on either side of the window?

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Health Effects of Exposure to General "Plastic" Odors or "Vinyl" Odors in the Home

A single small exposure [to vinyl chloride] from which a person recovers quickly is unlikely to cause delayed or long-term effects. Exposure to vinyl chloride over many years can affect the liver, nervous system, and skin. Long-term exposure can cause a rare form of liver cancer.

Article contents

There is no antidote for vinyl chloride, but its effects can be treated and most exposed persons recover completely. Persons who have inhaled large amounts of vinyl chloride might need to be hospitalized.-- ATSDR

  • The primary target of vinyl chloride acute exposure is the CNS. Signs and symptoms include dizziness, ataxia, inebriation, fatigue, numbness and tingling of the extremities, visual disturbances, coma, and death.
  • Vinyl chloride can irritate the eyes, mucous membranes, and respiratory tract. Escaping compressed gas or liquid can cause frostbite or irritation of the skin and eyes.
  • Chronic exposure can cause permanent liver injury and liver cancer, neurologic or behavioral symptoms, and changes to the skin and bones of the hand.
  • Vinyl chloride's acute CNS effects are likely to be caused by interaction of the parent compound with neural membranes. Other effects appear to be caused by interaction of reactive intermediates with macromolecules.-- ATSDR

Acute Exposure Exposure to Vinyl Chloride

Vinyl chloride is thought to depress the CNS via a solvent effect on lipids and protein components of neural membranes that interrupts signal transmission. Reactive metabolic intermediates may also cause specific target organ toxicity by covalently bonding to tissue or initiating destructive chain reactions such as lipid peroxidation. There may be a latent period of hours to days between exposure and symptom onset. Vinyl chloride is rapidly metabolized and the metabolites are eliminated in the urine.

Children do not always respond to chemicals in the same way that adults do. Different protocols for managing their care may be needed.-- ATSDR

Chronic Exposure to Vinyl Chloride

Prolonged absorption of vinyl chloride can induce hepatotoxicity and hepatic cancers, including angiosarcoma. Portal hypertension and cirrhosis can occur.

Vinyl chloride toxicity is thought to result from the binding of reactive epoxide metabolites to hepatic DNA. Other effects of chronic exposure include sensory-motor polyneuropathy; pyramidal, extrapyramidal, and cerebellar abnormalities; neuropsychiatric symptoms such as sleep disorders, loss of libido, headaches, and irritability; EEG alterations; and immunopathologic phenomena such as purpura and thrombocytopenia.

Vinyl chloride disease is a syndrome consisting of Raynaud's phenomenon, acroosteolysis (dissolution of the bones of the terminal phalanges and sacroiliac joints), and scleroderma-like skin changes.-- ATSDR

Vinyl Chloride Exposure - Additional Opinions

The following opinion is not part of the original US EPA Article on vinyl chloride odors, exposure, and hazards shown above.

The jury may be out on the question of health effects of residential exposure to various smells and odors such as the "plastic smell" we discuss

Plastics are used in an enormous range of building materials and consumer products, and plastics vary widely in their properties, chemical composition, tendency to give off gases, smells, odors, and in possible health concern.

One of the plastics that has received a lot of study are those using vinyl chloride. This product might be present in some common building products such as vinyl siding and vinyl windows or screens. The US EPA has classified vinyl chloride as a Group A, human carcinogen. Vinyl chloride might be present in gas form as a colorless, flammable gas with a faintly sweet odor at levels of about 3000 ppm (the odor detection threshold). Vinyl chloride hazards are discussed

Because people's sensitivity to smells and odors varies widely, as does their individual health, genetics, and vulnerability, we do not offer an opinion about the actual level of risk associated with odors that individuals perceive in a building.

When readers discuss exposure to various sources of odors, some of which might be unsafe, we

  1. Put basic safety first: assure that where life and safety concerns are present, an building owner or occupant should be sure not to let worry about a less-likely hazard, even one that deserves remediation, distract attention from other more immediate, serious, and high probability hazards (fire, electrical shock, falling, smoking, failure to wear a seat belt when in a vehicle, dangerous behaviors).

    "It is the EPA's position that for a carcinogen, it should be assumed, in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, that there is no ambient concentration that poses absolutely no public health risk." p. 76 of
    Standard Support and Environmental Impact Statement: Emission Standard for Vinyl Chloride
    (17MB large slow-loading PDF)
  2. Do not react inappropriately out of panic. Be careful about and to whom we express concerns: some contractors and consultants are understandably likely to give advice which is safest (for them) and sometimes profitable (for them) at the cost to the consumer.
  3. Obtain accurate health and exposure information wherever possible, relying on peer-reviewed, academic, and professional sources that minimize or have no conflicts of interest in the information they provide.
  4. Consult with your doctor about exposure to vinyl chloride or other gases, chemicals, or contaminants. ATSDR has provided this excellent
    Vinyl Chloride Exposure Questionnaire [PDF] that you can complete and take to your physician.

With many substances, people are able to detect by smell a substance at very low actual concentrations. It is possible that people detect smells or odors at levels well below currently-established levels of hazard, even if risk levels have been established for the particular chemical or chemical group.

Where chemical or plastic smells are observed in a building, many readers and some experts take an approach of prudent avoidance that includes identifying and correcting the odor source and improving indoor air quality with introduction of outdoor fresh air when that is practical.

Where serious illness or major expenses are involved with exposure to a particular indoor gas or odor, expert inspection and tests can be performed by various building experts including environmental inspectors and industrial hygienists. We advise against simple "air tests" alone as without a diagnostic inspection, even if a troublesome level of exposure is detected the building owners or occupants may be left without an actual plan of action.

Vinyl Chloride (CHCl) Patient Information Sheet - ATSDR

This handout, provided by ATSDR provides information and follow-up instructions for persons who have been exposed to vinyl chloride.

What is vinyl chloride?

Vinyl chloride is a colorless gas at room temperature that has a mild, sweet odor. It is handled and shipped as a liquid under high pressure in a special container. It is used to produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a plastic material used to make many products, including automotive parts, furniture, and building materials.

What immediate health effects can be caused by exposure to vinyl chloride?

Inhaling vinyl chloride causes sleepiness and dizziness, and can cause loss of consciousness. If pressurized liquid vinyl chloride escapes from its container and comes in contact with the skin or eyes, it can cause frostbite or irritation.

Can vinyl chloride poisoning be treated?

There is no antidote for vinyl chloride, but its effects can be treated and most exposed persons recover completely. Persons who have inhaled large amounts of vinyl chloride might need to be hospitalized.

Are any future health effects likely to occur?

A single small exposure from which a person recovers quickly is unlikely to cause delayed or long-term effects. Exposure to vinyl chloride over many years can affect the liver, nervous system, and skin. Long-term exposure can cause a rare form of liver cancer.

What tests can be done if a person has been exposed to vinyl chloride?

Specific tests for the presence of vinyl chloride in the breath or breakdown products in the urine are available, but they must be performed shortly after exposure and are not generally helpful. If a severe exposure has occurred, blood and other tests might show whether the liver or other organs have been damaged. Testing is not needed in every case.

Where can more information about vinyl chloride be found?

If the exposure happened at work, you might be required to contact your employer and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Employees may request a Health Hazard Evaluation from the national Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

You can get more information about vinyl chloride from your regional poison control center; your state, county, or local health department; the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR); your doctor; or a clinic in your area that specializes in occupational and environmental health. Ask the person who gave you this form for help locating these telephone numbers.


Patient Information Sheet 17, Vinyl Chloride Follow-up Instructions

Keep this page and take it with you to your next appointment. Follow only the instructions checked below.

[  ] Call your doctor or the Emergency Department if you develop any unusual signs or symptoms within the next 24 hours, especially:

dizziness, disorientation, drowsiness, or headaches

difficulty breathing

burning of skin or eyes

nausea or loss of appetite

[  ] No follow-up appointment is necessary unless you develop any of the symptoms listed above.

[  ] Call for an appointment with Dr. in the practice of .

When you call for your appointment, please say that you were treated in the Emergency Department at Hospital by and were advised to be seen again in days.

[  ] Return to the Emergency Department/ Clinic on (date) at

AM/PM for a follow-up examination.

[  ] Do not perform vigorous physical activities for 1 to 2 days.

[  ] You may resume everyday activities including driving and operating machinery.

[  ] Do not return to work for days.

[  ] You may return to work on a limited basis. See instructions below.

[  ] Avoid exposure to cigarette smoke for 72 hours; smoke may worsen the condition of your lungs.

[  ] Avoid drinking alcoholic beverages for at least 24 hours; alcohol may worsen injury to your stomach or have other effects.

[  ] Avoid taking the following medications:

[  ] You may continue taking the following medication(s) that your doctor(s) prescribed for you:

[  ] Other instructions:

Provide the Emergency Department with the name and the number of your primary care physician so that the ED can send him or her a record of your emergency department visit.

You or your physician can get more information on the chemical by contacting: or , or by checking out the following Internet Web sites:

How to Link to this article - copy and paste the link code just below: (R) PVC Vinyl Building Products, Odors, Hazards Information can be found at® - Building & Environmental Inspection, Testing, Diagnosis, Repair, & Problem Prevention Advice. Unbiased information, no conflicts of interest.

Plastic odors and the detection & source-diagnosis of many common odor sources observed some installations of vinyl exterior building siding or in other plastic or vinyl building products such as windows and trim are discussed at VINYL SIDING or WINDOW PLASTIC ODORS.

For a more broad approach to diagnosing building odor sources,

see ODORS, Smells, Gases in Buildings-Diagnosis & Cure


What are the health hazards of exposure to burned plastic & plastic odors in general?

Reader question: we had a stainless steel pot with a lid on it in the oven baking @ 250 degrees . There are black handles on this pot which are good in the oven to 350 degrees. We left the house and came home 2 hours later to a strong burning smell in the house.

The oven had pf in the control window which stands for program failure. The black handles looked as though they had been burnt. We opened the windows and turned the whole house fan on to ventilate. The odor has decreased but is still here three days later. Do you know if this is a health hazard? Thanks. - B.VSN 1/23/2014

Reply: the effects of burned plastic products in indoor air, in building fires, or in the atmosphere

I do not know and no one should assert that there is a health hazard from a smell in a building based on only an email exchange - as there is too much at risk: your health, your money for two.

But in my OPINION particles or chemicals/gases in air from burnt plastics are certainly capable of being respiratory irritants and might be hazardous.

For working purposes I am guessing that the plastic handles on your pot were a form of bakelite or similar plastic. As Sylvester-Bradley point out in an article focused principally on PVC risks,

The first truly synthetic plastic was created in 1907 by Leo Baekeland [Katz (1984)] from phenol formalde- hyde and christened ‘bakelite’which is now known to degrade into acrylonitrile, butadiene, styrene, cyanide and nitrous oxides which include irritants, suspected carcinogens and toxic respiratory system irritants [CAW (2003)].

Really?: from simply an email report and without actual expert assessment, one does not know the level nor exposure level of building occupants to this burned plastic odor contaminant and thus cannot reliably assess the actual risk.( Some of the sources cited below will surely recommend prudent avoidance. )

Often when there has been a fire of any sort in a building - burned pot or otherwise - the odors are absorbed by soft goods (carpets, curtains etc) that can be cleaned. If airing out the building is not enough you might want to see
our SMELL PATCH TEST to Track Down Odors to figure out which items need special attention.

At ODORS GASES SMELLS, DIAGNOSIS & CURE  we organize a sequence of articles on tracking down odor sources and curing them.

Here are some interesting citations reviewing the effects of burned plastic products in indoor air, in building fires, or in the atmosphere

  • Ables, Elden, Richard Bionta, Harlan Olson, Linda Ott, Eric Parker, Douglas Wright, and Craig Wuest. "ABS plastic RPCs." In Proceedings of the International Workshop on Resistive Plate Chambers and Related Detectors, Pavia p. 373. 1995. [Obsolte postscript file, hard to open, excerpting from search results:
    ... we were interested in materials with resistivities lower than the standard bakelite bulk resistivity of 1010-1011 ... Some materials heated up and melted un- der high voltage. ... Furthermore, because of the toxic fumes that it emits when burned, PVC poses an ES&H hazard
  • ALLEN, EG. "Plastic Materials and Fire Hazards (SEE PAGE 32)."]
  • Kampa, Marilena, and Elias Castanas. "Human health effects of air pollution." Environmental Pollution 151, no. 2 (2008): 362-367.
  • Sylvia Katz 1984 Classic Plastics Thames and Hudson, London
  • Simoneit, Bernd RT, Patricia M. Medeiros, and Borys M. Didyk. "Combustion products of plastics as indicators for refuse burning in the atmosphere." Environmental science & technology 39, no. 18 (2005): 6961-6970.
  • Sylvester-Bradley, Oliver. "Pernicious Plastics and the Precautionary Principle." [PDF] - quoting from search results: 'bakelite' which is now known to degrade into acrylonitrile, butadiene, styrene ...
    a suspected endocrine disruptors and carcinogen [6]) and nylon (toxic if burnt [7]). Retrieved 1/23/2014, original source
  • Tsydenova, Oyuna, and Magnus Bengtsson. "Chemical hazards associated with treatment of waste electrical and electronic equipment." Waste Management 31, no. 1 (2011): 45-58.
  • Zapp Jr, John A. "Toxic and health effects of plastics and resins." Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal 4, no. 3 (1962): 335-346.
  • HAZARD, FIRE. "THE HAZARDS OF SYNTHETIC PLASTICS." (1951). (J Wiley online library)

Watch out: Vinyl chloride might be present in gas form as a colorless, flammable gas with a faintly sweet odor at levels of about 3000 ppm (the odor detection threshold). We provide the US EPA health report on vinyl chloride at VINYL CHLORIDE HEALTH INFO - link given just below.


Continue reading at VINYL CHLORIDE HEALTH INFO or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.



Suggested citation for this web page

PLASTIC or VINYL ODOR EXPOSUREat - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.

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