A new report finds that accidents involving toxic vinyl chloride are common

A new report finds that accidents involving toxic vinyl chloride are common

The vinyl chloride industry made headlines across the country last winter when a train carrying the flammable, cancer-causing chemical derailed near the town of East Palestine, Ohio. The media published dystopian images of the plume of smoke from controlled-burning PVC cars, and thousands of people were evacuated from their homes.

Months later, when several environmental organizations, including the nonprofit Beyond Plastics, began calling for the EPA to consider banning vinyl chloride, the Vinyl Institute, an industry trade group, called their petition “a publicity stunt that irresponsibly ignores Decades of reliable science.” This demonstrates that VCM (vinyl chloride monomer) is manufactured safely and responsibly in the United States.”

In February, a publication by the institute asserted that 95% of vinyl chloride manufactured in the United States is transported via pipelines to facilities on the same property, and that train accidents involving vinyl chloride are “extremely rare.”

The institute insists that vinyl chloride and the product most often used to manufacture it, polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a common plastic in piping and flooring and known for its durability, are safe, and that protections for workers and the public have improved since then. 1970s, when stricter regulations were passed.

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But a new report published Tuesday by Beyond Plastics and Earthjustice, an environmental law nonprofit, shows that derailments, spills and other incidents are far from unusual in the vinyl chloride industry, casting doubt on the institute’s narrative. . In a comprehensive look at decades of manufacturing, storage and transportation-related incidents involving vinyl chloride, the report found that incidents occurred on average “once every five days since 2010.”

The report’s findings are based on information collected from government sources such as toxic release inventories and chemical data reports as well as local news reports, customs records and trade statistics.

“Nineteen-sixty-six incidents since 2010 is unbelievable to me,” said Jim Valette, president of research firm Material Research L3C, which released the report. “The industry talks a lot about how clean it is, but I think you can see in the raw data here how ubiquitous the effects of this industry are. I hope this provides a record that starts to push regulators to question the data provided by the industry.”

At a press conference on Tuesday, Jess Conard, an East Palestine resident who now serves as Appalachia corporate director for Beyond Plastics, spoke about the lessons learned from the derailment and its aftermath. She said: “We must realize that what happened here in East Palestine, Ohio, is not an isolated incident, but rather a symptom of a global crisis.” “It’s not a matter of if another PVC-related accident will happen, but when.”

The report states that 30 percent of vinyl chloride in the United States is transported by rail or ship before being converted into PVC, far more than the 5 percent claimed by the industry. PVC manufacturers in New Jersey, Illinois, Texas, and Mississippi receive “3.6 billion pounds of vinyl chloride by rail each year,” and there have been at least 29 cases in which train cars carrying vinyl chloride derailed, resulting in the evacuation of more than 40,000 people. People living near accident sites from Louisiana to Pennsylvania. A January report from Toxic Free Future, an environmental health organization, estimated that more than 3 million people live within a mile of a rail route currently used to transport vinyl chloride from Texas to New Jersey. Vinyl chloride’s toxicity and potential to explode make transporting it particularly dangerous, Valette said.

Records show that over the past 60 years, at least 14 people have died and 120 others have been injured due to vinyl chloride accidents at industrial sites. Of the 966 chemical incidents examined in the report, 930 occurred at vinyl chloride or PVC manufacturing and processing facilities; The remainder occurred during transportation, waste management, or in specialized chemical plants. “The frequency of these incidents reveals that they are a feature rather than an anomaly,” the authors wrote.

In December, the EPA announced that vinyl chloride would be one of five chemicals selected to begin the risk assessment prioritization process governed by the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA. This classification is an initial step in a years-long process that must be followed under TSCA to ban or restrict a chemical in the United States. The process may take up to seven or eight years to complete, depending on whether the agency needs the maximum amount of time. Each deadline is assigned, said Eve Gaertner, director of comprehensive toxics strategies at Earthjustice. Following the announcement, EPA invited public comment on vinyl chloride, and this report will be submitted to the agency as part of that review.

“The EPA has a solemn responsibility to protect all residents and workers from exposure to this toxic chemical, and we urge the Biden administration not to give in to the vinyl industry’s efforts to reduce the harms of vinyl chloride,” said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics. and former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, in a press release.

The health effects of exposure to vinyl chloride have been studied for decades. The Environmental Protection Agency already classifies vinyl chloride as a “human carcinogen” because of its link to a rare type of liver cancer, and exposure to the chemical can also cause headaches, drowsiness, dizziness, and irritation of the eyes and respiratory system. The use of vinyl chloride in aerosol products such as paints, solvents, and adhesives was banned in 1974. The Environmental Protection Agency banned its use in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics that same year.

In their February 2024 article, the Vinyl Institute argued that vinyl chloride “makes modern life possible.”

“As a building block for hundreds of products, the chemical enables the safe production and use of technologies that can be seen all around us,” they wrote. “From life-saving blood bags, sustainable water pipes, and car interiors and televisions to durable flooring, furniture, wall coverings, and wiring,” they wrote. “Electricity—even the cables that connect us to the Internet—are all made possible by venture capital.” “The simple fact is that six decades of research and real-world use prove that venture capital is safe. Exposure to venture capital is almost non-existent today.”

Between 2010 and 2022, companies released 6.3 million pounds of vinyl chloride into the air, according to the report. Atmospheric releases of vinyl chloride in the United States are clustered in Texas, Louisiana, and Kentucky. Kentucky is home to the largest producer of vinyl chloride emissions, the Westlake Chemical facility in Calvert City. The Philadelphia-Wilmington metro area is another hotspot, accounting for 13% of air releases between 2010 and 2022. PVC Facilities in Pedricktown, New Jersey, is responsible for these releases; The train cars in the East Palestine disaster were headed through Pennsylvania to Pedricktown before being derailed.

The report notes several other pathways of exposure to vinyl chloride in the United States: Vinyl chloride contamination was found in 699 homes. Super fine locations, in children’s toys and in PVC pipes used to transport drinking water. Since 2021, six PVC facilities have been found to be “in violation of the Clean Water Act” regarding their wastewater discharges.

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In addition to rail accidents, the report collects data on the movement of vinyl chloride exports, which are largely shipped to facilities in Mexico and Colombia on massive tankers each carrying up to 10 million pounds. The report describes a 1995 incident in Texas, in which a tanker transporting vinyl chloride collided with a barge, resulting in the evacuation of 2,700 people. “Eastern Palestine would look like a minor accident compared to a ship full of vinyl chloride,” Valette said of the explosion risk posed by this type of chemical transport.

“I believe the evidence in the report describes a chronic state of exposure of workers and communities in factories and between factories, which is inevitable because of the nature of the chemical,” Valette said. “All the evidence points to the need to reduce this risk. The only way to reduce this risk is to reduce its production.

Conard appealed to the EPA to act, saying the disaster in eastern Palestine should become “the last straw that leads to the end of the vinyl chloride ban.”

“What happened in East Palestine, Ohio, was 100 percent preventable,” she said. “And we can prevent the next event from happening.”

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