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Is PVC Safe for My Bird?

Written by Deb White 

Since I have encountered a high degree of internet chatter amongst concerned bird owners, where many stated they would never give items containing PVC to their birds. So, in this month’s safety article, it is my intention to take a look at the “good and the bad issues” surrounding PVC and address some of the concerns bird owners may have.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is a widely used plastic that comes in two basic forms: rigid and flexible.

• The rigid form of PVC is most commonly used in the manufacture of plumbing pipe, fittings and many other household items like doors and window frames. 

• Flexible (aka soft) PVC is made through the addition of plasticizers.

The Bad News……

The manufacture of PVC is an environmentally unfriendly process due to the hazardous nature of the chemicals used.  To produce PVC, ethylene and chlorine are combined to produce an intermediate product called ethylene dichloride which is then transformed into vinyl chloride, the building block of PVC.  Vinyl chloride in its monomer form is highly toxic, flammable and carcinogenic.   Polymerization, the process of reacting monomer molecules together to form polymer chains, is the final step in the manufacturing process of PVC, hence the name Polyvinyl Chloride.

If the manufacturing process is not properly controlled, carcinogenic dioxins can be released into the atmosphere. These factors present health risks to workers and the environment near manufacturing facilities.

Rigid PVC: The Good News……

Although the manufacture of PVC is NOT an environmentally friendly process, the stability of the final product in its rigid form renders it non-toxic and safe for our birds. 

• Rigid PVC is chemically inert (unreactive) and, due to this fact, it is approved to carry our drinking water supplies.

• Due to its hardness, rigid PVC is virtually impossible for a bird to break it so the likelihood of ingestion is minimal.

• PVC does not release VOC’s (Volatile Organic Chemicals) until the temperature reaches 140 degrees Centigrade (284 degrees Fahrenheit) therefore inhalation risk is negligible at room temperature.

For more than 35 years, PVC pipe has been successfully tested against the ANSI/NSF 61 standard which applies to products that come into contact with potable water. Studies have also shown that PVC pipes offer a projected lifespan of over 100 years without degradation or loss of properties.  

Flexible PVC: Bad News…..maybe

Flexible or Soft PVC is also used in a wide variety of household products including children’s toys and toy parts which are then often also provided to our pet birds.

The potential for toxic exposure from flexible PVC products is related to the plasticizers (additives) that may have been used to alter the hardness of the PVC. Several years back, lead and phthalates were commonly used as additives to make PVC soft and pliable. Due to health concerns, the use of lead and specific phthalate plasticizers have been phased out in Europe, Canada and the US.

In 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) established safety limits and testing requirements for the presence of these chemicals in children’s toys.  The end result is that toys manufactured or imported into the US since the implementation of CPSIA are much safer.

So, are plastic toy parts safe for our birds?

Fortunately, there are several forms of safe plastics out there (Rigid PVC, PP, PE, ABS, SAN, Acrylics) for use in bird toys.   Soft PVC components can also be safe depending on how and when they were processed. A few points to remember:

• If the plastic component was manufactured or imported as a children’s toy part after implementation of CPSIA in 2008, then it is very likely safe to use.

• Plastics items manufactured for contact with food can also be deemed chemically safe as these are highly regulated by the FDA.

However, as with anything we provide to our birds, when it comes to assessing safety, we must first apply our knowledge of how our individual bird interacts with toys:

• If your bird is prone to ingesting non-food items, then avoid soft plastics of any kind to avoid crop impaction.

• When considering toys with plastic components a bird owner must consider the nature of the plastic component (i.e., soft vs. brittle) relative to the size of the bird.

• Brittle plastics should not be given to larger birds because when they break very sharp, cutting edges are formed and if swallowed accidentally could result in ruptured organs.

• Hard plastic toys specifically designed for parakeets and cockatiels should not be given to larger birds with the beak power to destroy them.

• If the plastic component is durable enough to withstand your bird’s beak then don’t worry as there is no risk of ingestion or shattering.

Working Safely with Rigid PVC

If you decide to make your own toys or play gyms please note that although rigid PVC is inert, safety issues can arise if this material is mishandled.  Please follow these guidelines:

• When cutting PVC pipe the fine particle dust is produced and can cause asthma and affect your lungs.  Always wear a dust mask and safety goggles and work in a well-ventilated area away from your birds.

• Make sure to wash away all PVC cuttings and dust before providing anything to your bird.

• Sometimes people like to bend and curve PVC when creating a play area. This is accomplished by applying heat in the range of 100 to 150 degrees C depending on the type of bend you want to make.  At the high end of this temperature range it is possible for VOC’s to be released so it is imperative to do this is a well-ventilated area away from your birds.

• PVC Glue is actually a solvent that will evaporate completely and not leave a residue after joining the PVC pieces. However, it can be hazardous to your health if it comes in contact with eyes, skin or is inhaled.  When working with PVC cement, wear gloves and safety goggles and always work outside or in a well-ventilated area away from your birds.  Let the glued PVC air out for a few days before giving it to your bird.

• If you do not want to use PVC cement, consider some alternatives:

• Sometimes PVC fittings will hold together tightly by just pounding them together with a rubber mallet.  Test the tightness of the joints to preclude collapse of the play structure.

•Use nuts and bolts to hold PVC joints together

•Use vet wrap near the joints to create a tighter fit. As a side benefit, the use of vet wrap also makes play gyms less slippery and adds color.

•Rigid PVC can be textured or wrapped to provide for a better foot grip for your birds. Some methods people use include wrapping perching areas with vet wrap or sisal rope or texturing the PVC with a wood rasp.

In Conclusion

The lightweight, durable and chemically stable nature of rigid PVC makes it an excellent choice for use in bird products, especially play gyms. This material is also extremely beak proof and easy to clean.

Plastic toy parts can undoubtedly add many interesting textures, colors, mechanical and fun dimensions to our bird’s toys and therefore should not be avoided as a material class. However, it is our responsibility as bird owners, based on knowledge of our individual birds, to make appropriate choices as to the size and types of toys and toy parts we provide.

If you are concerned, ask the manufacturer about the type of plastic used in a particular toy.  Responsible manufacturers should be able to provide this information.