It wasn’t just Ohio: Report says vinyl chloride accidents happen often

A new report published by environmental justice organizations found that once every five days there is an incident in which vinyl chloride, a human carcinogen, is illegally released into the environment in the U.S. 

The cancer-causing chemical is most commonly used to make PVC plastic, and made headlines last year following the derailment of a freight train that was carrying tanks of vinyl chloride in East Palestine, Ohio. Norfolk Southern decided to burn the toxic chemical inside the train a few days after the derailment over fears the tank cars were going to explode. 

Earlier this month, the National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy told Congress the decision to controllably burn the chemical at the derailment site was not justified. 

Residents of East Palestine have lingering fears about possible long-term health consequences from the vinyl chloride and other chemicals that spilled from the freight train incident. 

But chemical incidents like the Ohio train derailment are far from rare, according to the report from Beyond Plastics and Earthjustice. 

There have been at least 966 chemical incident reports involving vinyl chloride since 2010, the report stated. Most of those incidents occurred at facilities that manufacture and process the toxic chemical. 

The number of vinyl chloride manufacturing facilities across the U.S. has shrunk over the years, but the volume of production has increased substantially — from 6.8 billion pounds in 1974 to more than 18.6 billion pounds in 2021, the report said. The dozen facilities that operate today are located in Texas, Louisiana and Kentucky.

While there is a primary concern for the communities near these processing facilities, the report highlights the dangers of transporting vinyl chloride across the country via rail cars. 

There have been at least 29 derailments of train cars carrying the chemical since 1968, and nearly half resulted in the vinyl chloride being released into the environment, the report said. 

Beyond Plastics and Earthjustice said they collaborated on the report to submit it to the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the agency’s public comment period in their ongoing risk evaluation of the chemical. 

The findings were based on information gathered from the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory and Chemical Data Reporting and other reports.  

The organizations said they want the EPA to designate vinyl chloride as a high-priority chemical under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to phase it out and ultimately ban its use. 

“Companies expose people to vinyl chloride through every phase of its life cycle. People working at factories that make vinyl chloride, people transporting the chemical, and communities living in neighborhoods near factories or railroads are particularly at risk of experiencing a high-exposure incident,” Beyond Plastics and Earthjustice said.

The Vinyl Institute, a trade organization that represents vinyl manufacturers, said the chemical’s byproduct is vital for PVC pipes used for clean water lines and medical products. It also refutes the claim that the industry is causing harm, stating the industry has made significant strides in workplace safety since the 1970s. 

The EPA will decide on the designation of vinyl chloride, and the other four chemicals it is reviewing, in December.