Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Dear Umbra,

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

I want to buy a stability ball and some purport to be PVC-free and made of non-toxic vinyl. Is there such a thing?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

New York City

Woman on a vinyl ball.If that ball is vinyl, this scene isn’t as healthy as it looks.Photo: Adria RichardsA. Dearest Rose,

I give you snaps for seeking a more stable, balanced life. Stability balls promise all sorts of fun, from improving your posture to accidental masturbation (shh). Only problem is, many stability balls (also called exercise balls or Swiss balls) look like rubber but are, in fact, vinyl. Hardly a surprise, as vinyl is everywhere. The good news is, there is at least one vinyl-free ball out there, made by EcoWise (they told me it tests negative for PVC, phthalates, and chloride, although when pressed for what it is made of, they said things like “special compound” and “trade secret”). But I’m afraid “non-toxic vinyl” is a bit of an oxymoron.

Let’s back up a bit. When an Italian gent developed the first stability ball in 1963, the phrase “No vinyl; that’s final” was just a gleam in my mother’s eye. Since then, vinyl’s — the “street” name for polyvinyl chloride, or PVC — has become one of my favorite topics.

Often found in such seemingly innocent items as the shower curtain, the “rubber” ducky, and the beach ball, PVC is shiny and smells odd. But it’s not just about offending your nose. The creation and disposal of vinyl involve carcinogens and endocrine disruptors such as dioxin, lead, and phthalates (the last of which is what makes your stability ball so bouncy and flexible). Pee-ew. This plastic ain’t fantastic. (It’s #3, by the way.)

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

But wait, there’s more! “The major reason why PVC poses so many environmental and health threats throughout its life cycle is because it contains large amounts of chlorine,” writes the Environmental Health Strategy Center [PDF]. “PVC is the only major plastic that contains chlorine, so it is unique in the hazards it creates.” By the time your stability ball rolls its way over to you, plasticizers and other chemicals have been added.

Rose, you have such a sweet-smelling name. I’m glad you want to avoid the foul whiff of offgassing chemicals you’d get from a vinyl stability ball. It’s hard to divine your exact reason for wanting one, but you sound pretty firm. If it’s for work use, limited research suggests that you may be better off considering an ergonomic office chair.

If you’re set on a ball, for exercise or otherwise, look for one made of rubber or one that specifically says it is non-PVC, like the EcoWise ball I mentioned above Then bounce away to happiness! If all else fails, your greenest option may be simply to stand on one foot for extended periods of time, flamingo-style.