Prove your humanity

Environmental and community groups are calling on the US EPA agency to ban vinyl chloride, a chemical used to make PVC pipes and many other consumer products. It’s also the chemical vented from five derailed train cars in East Palestine, Ohio earlier this year and burned, resulting in an explosion. The groups submitted 27,570 signatures to the agency this week.

“We’re here today to tell the EPA that it’s time now. We can’t wait to ban vinyl chloride. We can’t slow walk this,” said Daniel Winston, co-executive director River Valley Organizing, based in East Liverpool, Ohio, standing in front of the EPA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. on Thursday. Winston lives 17 miles from the derailment site.

River Valley Organizing was joined by Beyond Plastics, Hip Hop Caucus, Moms Clean Air Force, Greenpeace, and other groups calling for the ban.

 “That accident was a chilling warning that we must act now to ban petrochemicals, like vinyl chloride, and keep communities safe from known carcinogens,” said Heather McTeer Toney, executive director of Beyond Petrochemicals.

LISTEN to Julie Grant discuss her reporting with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple

Smoke cloud from burning vinyl chloride.

A drone image above David Anderson’s farm in Beaver County, Pa., 4.2 miles from the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment on February 6, 2023, when Norfolk Southern did a controlled release and burn of vinyl chloride from the derailed train cars. Image courtesy of David Anderson.

What is vinyl chloride?

Vinyl Chloride is a gas, used in making polyvinyl chloride, known as PVC, which, by some estimates, accounts for up to 25% of all plastic that’s produced. 

According to the CDC, if vinyl chloride is released into the air, people can breathe it in, the most common route of exposure. It can also get into groundwater, and it’s a known human carcinogen.  

PVC is used in plumbing, in hard plastic pipes, as well as flooring, electrical appliances, and credit cards, “and then perhaps most insidious is the use of PVC for children’s toys,” said Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator and currently president of the non-profit Beyond Plastics

We all remember the floating yellow rubber ducky. My kid had it in his bathtub. Well, it’s a PVC plastic toy, which our children suck on in the bathtub. That is not a good thing,” she said.

Enck says it shouldn’t be allowed in toys. And, as many places around the country replace old lead pipes, she thinks steel or recycled copper pipes should replace them instead of ones made from PVC.

A history of safety concerns 

Vinyl chloride is not a new chemical. According to the Plastics Historical Society, it was first produced in 1835, but took nearly 100 years for it to be developed commercially. It was used to make toys and dolls, and to substitute rubber in World War 2. 

In the mid-1970s, it was shown to cause a rare lung cancer in workers at a plant making PVC from vinyl chloride. There’s a 1974 press release by the Consumer Products Safety Commission issuing a ban on aerosol products that contain vinyl chloride, like paints and solvents, and the Food and Drug Administration banned it from use in cosmetics, like hair sprays, saying it caused cancer and other health problems.

Since then, the manufacturing process of making PVC pipes has changed to reduce residual vinyl chloride on pipes. According to Beyond Plastics, one study found that PVC pipes can still leach the chemical into water, but at levels lower than what’s allowable by the EPA.

The train derailment in East Palestine draws attention to transportation

Beyond Plastics and other groups have focused for years on concerns over the production, use and disposal of chemicals used in plastics like vinyl chloride, but only recently on transportation.

“East Palestine really has opened our eyes about the fact that more and more toxic chemicals are being moved all over the country on a pretty rickety rail system,” Enck said.

She calls trains carrying toxic chemicals through a community like East Palestine an environmental justice issue, just like locating plastic manufacturing facilities, hazardous waste sites, and landfills in communities where there are more people of color or people with lower incomes. 

“This is one of the most significant environmental justice issues facing the country. If you look at the production in mostly environmental justice communities,” she said.

When vinyl chloride burns, as it did after the train derailment, it can create other toxic chemicals, like dioxins.

“If anything positive could come out of the terrible train accident in East Palestine, it would be to finally ban this chemical that was purposely set on fire,” she said.

Industry responds to efforts to ban vinyl chloride

The Vinyl Institute, a trade organization, said it shares the concern for the people of East Palestine. In a statement emailed to The Allegheny Front, president and CEO Ned Monroe calls the attempt to ban vinyl chloride a “publicity stunt,” saying the chemical is safely and responsibly manufactured in the U.S. 

“Beyond Plastics has chosen to use the tragic events of East Palestine to advance deceptive and disproven claims about our industry that only serve to mislead the public,” he said.

How likely is a ban?

Beyond Plastics and the other groups met Thursday with Michal Freedhoff, the EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

Banning or restricting the use of a chemical is a long and complex process. There are tens of thousands of chemicals used in the U.S., but few have been banned. A ban on asbestos, a substance connected with disease since 1918, is set to take effect later this year, and EPA recently proposed banning most uses of two other chemicals. 

Under the 2016 revisions to the Toxic Substances Control Act, EPA is identifying chemicals of concern for risk evaluation. Vinyl chloride “was selected by EPA to be on a list of chemicals for further assessment based on its hazards and potential risks of exposure,” said EPA spokesperson Jeff Landis in an email to The Allegheny Front. 

He said it is possible that EPA could begin that process, which is required to be completed in 3 to 3 and half years in the near future, possibly this winter. If vinyl chloride was found to pose an unreasonable risk to human health and the environment, its use could be restricted or banned.

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