Though vinyl siding is a popular choice among homeowners due to its cost, durability, and easy maintenance, it comes with health risks for the occupants to a house. Therefore, a homeowner should carefully consider these risks when deciding on which siding type to use. Despite the perceived dangers of vinyl siding, some experts believe these risks are minimal and that vinyl is a good option for homeowners.
Vinyl Siding Byproducts and Their Dangers
Vinyl siding is made primarily of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a durable and cheap plastic often used in construction. When PVC is heated up or burned, such as in very hot weather or a fire, it will release formaldehyde, hydrogen chloride, and dioxin into the air, all of which are gases that may cause illness and are known carcinogens. In case of a fire, it is possible for these gases to kill the occupants of a home before the fire reaches them. In some cases, firefighters have allowed homes to burn to avoid toxic exposure from burning vinyl siding.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided numerous storm victims with temporary trailers made using PVC. As a result, a number of victims experienced respiratory problems and nosebleeds. Critics accused FEMA of placing innocent people into “toxic tin cans.” Scientific studies conducted to determine the reason for these illnesses found that formaldehyde was a likely culprit.
Similarly, following the Iowa floods of 2008, many residents of FEMA-provided trailers, constructed with PVC, complained of headaches and respiratory problems.
In the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China, many people were temporarily housed in mobile homes that were made with a material emitting high levels of formaldehyde; many women who lived in these trailers had miscarriages. These homes emitted five times the formaldehyde allowed by regulations in China. Chou Weiwei, the President of Shenyang Women and Infant Hospital, stated that formaldehyde could cause abnormal births and heart disease among newborns.
Dioxin has been linked to numerous illnesses such as organ disease, cancer, heart attacks, diabetes, and chloracne. It is still not known exactly at what threshold dioxin becomes dangerous. In 1976, an accident at a manufacturing plant at Seveso, Italy caused massive dioxin exposure to nearby populations. Numerous cases of chloracne, which disfigures the skin of the face with cysts, were reported, and decades later an increase in breast cancer was found. However, in this case the exposure of dioxin well exceeded the levels to which typical homeowners using vinyl siding are exposed.
Environmental Concerns of PVC
Dioxin, which is released when PVC is burned, is known to bioaccumulate because it is fat-soluble. Meat and dairy products that contain dioxin will pass on the dioxin to humans. For this reason many environmentally-conscious homeowners choose other forms of siding that they believe to be better for the environment.
The manufacturing of PVC releases nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, both of which pollute the environment. Nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere has been linked to an increase in respiratory problems, and sulfur dioxide is a cause of smog and acid rain.
Mold and Mildew from Improper Installation
If vinyl siding is not sealed or installed properly it may allow moisture, due to humidity or rainwater, to reach the walls behind the siding, thus causing rot. Rotting walls may foster the growth of mold and mildew, which may trigger asthma attacks, particularly in children. Therefore, if a homeowner chooses vinyl siding for his or her home, it is important that a reputable contractor be chosen for the installation. The siding should be caulked periodically to prevent moisture from penetrating the walls.
Some Experts Support Vinyl Siding for Houses
When properly installed, vinyl siding offers good weather resistance. Vinyl siding is also generally cheaper to install compared to brick, fiber cement, and wood siding. Vinyl siding can be added to a home in a variety of textures and colors, adding to its beauty.
Despite the health and environmental concerns raised about vinyl siding, some proponents of vinyl siding, such as those at the Vinyl Siding Institute, a trade association, believe the dangers are exaggerated and that vinyl siding is a good option for homeowners. The Vinyl Siding Institute asserts that vinyl siding may prevent fires due to its fire-retardant properties. Vinyl siding will not ignite until it reaches 400C, whereas wood will ignite at significantly lower temperatures. When ignited, vinyl siding spreads flames relatively slowly.
Advocates of vinyl siding emphasize that PVC production is the cause of only 2% of the dioxin released into the environment, citing the EPA. According to the EPA, the manufacturing of cement creates more dioxin than the manufacturing of PVC. Vinyl siding can be recycled if a homeowner wishes to recycle it. Vinyl siding also does not require painting as does wood siding, and thus does not contaminate the environment with lead and other additives used in paint.
Supporters of vinyl siding also mention that installers of brick and fiber cement siding may be at risk for silicosis, a serious respiratory illness caused by repeated exposure to silica dust, whereas vinyl siding installers are not at risk.
Studies Support Insulated Vinyl Siding
2008 and 2009 studies conducted by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and Newport Ventures, a research and consulting firm, found that insulated vinyl siding kept heat within homes much better than did a competing fiber cement product. These studies relied on thermal imaging, which demonstrated the efficacy of insulated vinyl siding in keeping a home warm. Researchers concluded that the superiority of insulated vinyl siding would save homeowners $56 per year in gas and electricity expenses, benefiting both the environment and the pocketbooks of consumers.
Although there are concerns among some environmentalists and scientists about the chemical byproducts of PVC, particularly in its manufacture, vinyl siding remains a very popular option for homeowners due to its benefits. Some experts point to certain environmental and safety advantages of vinyl siding compared to other types of siding. Given such a wide range of perspectives, homeowners must carefully evaluate the benefits and risks of vinyl siding and ensure that reputable professionals are hired for proper installation if they choose it.