Drinking Water Contaminants- Vinyl chloride

This is a factsheet about a chemical that may be found in some public or private drinking water supplies. It may cause health problems if found in amounts greater than the health standard set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

What is Vinyl Chloride and how is it used?

Vinyl chloride is a colorless organic gas with a sweet odor. It is used in the manufacture of numerous products in building and construction, automotive industry, electrical wire insulation, and cables, piping, industrial and household equipment, medical supplies, and is depended upon heavily by the rubber, paper, and glass industries.

The list of trade names given below may help you find out whether you are using this chemical at home or work.

Trade Names and Synonyms:

  • Chlorethene
  • Chlorethylene
  • Monochloroethene
  • Monovinyl chloride (MVC)
  • Trovidur

Why is Vinyl Chloride being Regulated?

In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. This law requires EPA to determine safe levels of chemicals in drinking water that do or may cause health problems. These non-enforceable levels, based solely on possible health risks and exposure, are called Maximum Contaminant Level Goals.

The MCLG for vinyl chloride has been set at zero because EPA believes this level of protection would not cause any of the potential health problems described below.

Based on this MCLG, EPA has set an enforceable standard called a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL). MCLs are set as close to the MCLGs as possible, considering the ability of public water systems to detect and remove contaminants using suitable treatment technologies.

The MCL has been set at 2 parts per billion (ppb) because EPA believes, given present technology and resources, this is the lowest level to which water systems can reasonably be required to remove this contaminant should it occur in drinking water.

These drinking water standards and the regulations for ensuring these standards are met, are called National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. All public water supplies must abide by these regulations.

What are the Health Effects?

Short-term: EPA has found vinyl chloride to potentially cause the following health effects when people are exposed to it at levels above the MCL for relatively short periods of time: damage to the nervous system.

Long-term: Vinyl chloride has the potential to cause the following effects from a lifetime exposure at levels above the MCL: damage to the liver and nervous system; cancer.

How much Vinyl Chloride is produced and released to the environment?

Production of vinyl chloride in 1993 was nearly 14 billion lbs. Its major release to the environment will be as emissions and wastewater at polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics production and manufacturing facilities. Small quantities of vinyl chloride can be released to food since it is used to make many food wrappings and containers.

From 1987 to 1993, according to EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, vinyl chloride releases to water and land totaled over 38,000 lbs. These releases were primarily from plastics materials and resins industries. The largest releases occurred in Louisiana and Delaware.

What happens to Vinyl Chloride when it is released to the environment?

Vinyl chloride released to the soil will either quickly evaporate, be broken down by microbes, or may leach to the groundwater. It also rapidly evaporates from water but does not degrade there. It will not accumulate in aquatic life.

How will Vinyl Chloride be Detected in and Removed from My Drinking Water?

The regulation for vinyl chloride became effective in 1989. Between 1993 and 1995, EPA required your water supplier to collect water samples every 3 months for one year and analyze them to find out if vinyl chloride is present above 0.5 ppb. If it is present above this level, the system must continue to monitor this contaminant.

If contaminant levels are found to be consistently above the MCL, your water supplier must take steps to reduce the amount of vinyl chloride so that it is consistently below that level. The following treatment methods have been approved by EPA for removing vinyl chloride: Granular activated charcoal in combination with Packed Tower Aeration.

How will I know if Vinyl Chloride is in my drinking water?

If the levels of vinyl chloride exceed the MCL, 2 ppb, the system must notify the public via newspapers, radio, TV, and other means. Additional actions, such as providing alternative drinking water supplies, may be required to prevent serious risks to public health.

Drinking Water Standards:

  • Mclg: zero
  • Mcl: 2 ppb

Vinyl Chloride Releases to Water and Land, 1987 to 1993 (in pounds):

  Water Land
TOTALS (in pounds) 21,693 17,038
Top Five States
LA 12,600 0

DE 86 8,829

OH 3,360 0

PA 0 3,290

SC 0 3,100

Major Industries
Plastics, resins 19,489 13,375
As part of the Drinking Water and Health pages, this fact sheet is part of a larger U.S. EPA publication:
EPA National Primary Drinking Water Regulations

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