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Report reveals staggering frequency of accidents involving toxic chemical: 'We can prevent the next one from happening'

"We must recognize that what happened here … is not an isolated incident, but a symptom of a global crisis."

"We must recognize that what happened here ... is not an isolated incident, but a symptom of a global crisis."

Photo Credit: Getty Images

In February 2023, a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, forced thousands to evacuate their homes, causing a media frenzy documenting the destruction and fires of the cars carrying vinyl chloride and other hazardous materials. Now, a study is saying events like these are far from anomalies, with accidents happening on average once every five days.

What's happening?

A recent report from Beyond Plastics, Earthjustice, and Toxic-Free Future shows that derailments, leaks, and other accidents involving vinyl chloride, a colorless gas primarily used to manufacture plastic, have occurred about once "every 5.3 days" since 2010, as detailed by Inside Climate News.

"Since 2010, there have been at least 966 chemical incident reports involving vinyl chloride," the report read. "Of those, 930 occurred at factories that produce vinyl chloride or PVC plastics. The others occurred on railroads, ports, roads, waste management facilities, and specialty chemical manufacturing plants."

"Nine hundred and sixty-six incidents since 2010 is incredible to me," Jim Vallette, president of Material Research L3C, the company behind the report, told Inside Climate News. "I hope that this provides a record that starts to lead regulators to be skeptical of industry-supplied data." 

Why is this study important?

In 2023, the Vinyl Institute refuted evidence of the dangers of vinyl chloride in response to an expected petition from Beyond Plastics to ban the chemical.

"This week's petition by Beyond Plastics seeking to ban vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) is a publicity stunt that irresponsibly ignores decades of credible science that shows VCM is safely and responsibly manufactured in the United States," Ned Monroe, president and CEO of the institute, said in a statement

Vinyl Institute cited declining pollution rates, recycled materials, and the production of life-saving medical devices to refute the claims made in the petition.

According to the National Cancer Institute, "vinyl chloride exposure is associated with an increased risk of a rare form of liver cancer (hepatic angiosarcoma), as well as primary liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma), brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia." The Environmental Protection Agency labels vinyl chloride as a "human carcinogen."

The report from Beyond Plastics and Earthjustice found that "approximately 30% — 5.6 billion pounds — of all vinyl chloride produced in the U.S. is transported in chemical tanks by rail or boats." 

This transportation has led to numerous incidents, including a November 2012 Paulsboro, New Jersey derailment that "sickened hundreds" and the 2023 East Palestine derailment, "whose toll is only beginning to emerge," per the report in March.

"We must recognize that what happened here in East Palestine, Ohio is not an isolated incident, but a symptom of a global crisis," Jess Conard, an East Palestine resident and Appalachia director for Beyond Plastics, told Inside Climate News. "It's not a matter of if another vinyl chloride incident will happen, but when." 

A separate report from Toxic-Free Future found that up to 36 million pounds of vinyl chloride are transported at any moment, putting "more than three million people [living] within a mile of the train route," which is "the longest route in the country for rail transport of vinyl chloride," at risk, according to a statement from the organization.

What's being done about vinyl chloride?

In December 2023, the EPA began a review process into vinyl chloride. However, it could take several years to complete, according to Inside Climate News. 

The Vinyl Institute has stated its commitment to working with the EPA on the process. "Such a high-quality evaluation by the EPA will further assure that production of vinyl chloride and PVC products are safe," the organization said.

Safety regulators are continuing to assess the damage from the East Palestine derailment to determine how to prevent it in the future. Limiting single-use plastic could help decrease the amount of vinyl chloride produced and transported and provide more transparency in cargo from railroads and companies to prepare for unfortunate disasters.

"What happened in East Palestine, Ohio was 100% preventable," Jess Conard told ICN. "And we can prevent the next one from happening."

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