Short-term exposures to very high levels of vinyl chloride in air can cause dizziness, stumbling and lack of muscle coordination, headache, unconsciousness, and even death. Long-term exposure to lower but unmeasured amounts in factories where vinyl chloride is made or processed has caused "vinyl chloride disease." This disease is characterized by severe damage to the liver, effects on the lungs, poor circulation in the fingers, changes in the bones at the end of the fingers, thickening of the skin, and changes in the blood.
Vinyl chloride enters the body through food or water containing it. Passage of vinyl chloride through the skin is not likely to be an important pathway. There are no satisfactory tests to determine vinyl chloride exposure. Studies designed to determine if the low levels of vinyl chloride measured in outside air, drinking water, or food could cause harmful effects in humans have not been performed. However, vinyl chloride is a known carcinogen.
Vinyl chloride is a colourless gas with a mild, sweet odour. It is a man-made chemical produced to manufacture polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Vinyl chloride is mainly released into the air and discharged in wastewater from the plastics industries (primarily vinyl chloride and PVC manufacturers). Most of the vinyl chloride that enters the environment eventually ends up in air where it gradually breaks down into less harmful substances. The levels of vinyl chloride found in the environment are usually more than a thousand times lower than levels found in occupational settings. However, damaging concentrations of vinyl chloride in waste dumps and near factories. The air inside new cars may contain levels of vinyl chloride higher than expected for that location, because vinyl chloride may seep into the air from the new plastic parts.
Vinyl chloride that enters drinking water comes from factories that release wastes containing it into rivers and lakes and from its seepage into underground water in areas where chemical wastes containing it are stored. Small amounts of vinyl chloride can enter the drinking water from contact with polyvinyl chloride pipes. In the past, higher than expected amounts were present in foods packaged in plastic that contained vinyl chloride.
Inhalation of vinyl chloride is of concern for workers in vinyl chloride manufacturing or processing, for people living in communities where vinyl chloride plants are located, and for individuals living near hazardous waste disposal sites.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limits the amount of vinyl chloride allowed in packaging materials, notably plastics, that contact food in order to limit the intake of vinyl chloride. The US In 1989, the US EPA set limits on vinyl chloride in the drinking water. In order to control the handling of vinyl chloride, EPA has named the chemical as a hazardous component of solid waste.