The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it is beginning the process to prioritize five toxic chemicals for risk evaluation, including vinyl chloride, which burned in the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Prioritizing a chemical means EPA will evaluate whether it presents an unreasonable risk to health or the environment, and if protections are needed. It’s the first step under the agency’s authority to regulate chemicals that are currently on the market.
Vinyl chloride is used in making PVC pipes, insulating materials and many consumer goods, but it’s a known human carcinogen. The federal government banned its use in hair sprays, refrigerants, cosmetics and drugs in 1974.
The EPA risk evaluation is a year-long process to study the safety of chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which was amended in 2016 to require the agency to evaluate existing chemicals.
“Today marks an important step forward,” said Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Michal Freedhoff. “Moving forward to comprehensively study the safety of these five chemicals that have been in use for decades is key to better protecting people from toxic exposure.”
Train derailment brought increased attention to vinyl chloride
The Norfolk Southern train that derailed in East Palestine on Feb. 3 was carrying vinyl chloride. The chemical was vented from five rail cars and burned.
“We want to see a complete and total ban of vinyl chloride,” said resident Jess Conard, who now works with the non-profit Beyond Plastics, which calls this one of the most important chemical review processes undertaken by EPA.
Conard points out that thousands of pounds of vinyl chloride are released every year in the U.S.
“The disaster in my community is a symptom and yet another grim warning of vinyl chloride production and transportation,” Conard said.
If the EPA designates vinyl chloride as a High Priority Substance, it will then begin a formal risk evaluation. “The agency must immediately start the risk management process to take action to eliminate these unreasonable risks,” according to the agency news release.
“Going forward, EPA expects to initiate prioritization on five chemicals every year, which will create a sustainable and effective pace for risk evaluations,” it continued.
In a press release, the Vinyl Institute, an industry trade group, said the risk evaluation prioritization is no surprise, and it is prepared to work with the EPA during this process.