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New report estimates millions of Americans are at risk of exposure to toxic 'bomb trains': 'It's going to happen again'

"It is time we stopped sacrificing people in the name of industry and economy."

"It is time we stopped sacrificing people in the name of industry and economy."

Photo Credit: iStock

A new report estimates that millions of Americans are unknowingly in danger of toxic "bomb trains" carrying highly flammable chemicals used in plastic production.

What's happening?

According to a joint report released by environmental health research and advocacy organizations Toxic-Free Future and Material Research, more than 3 million people are estimated to live within a mile of the likely longest train route that transports vinyl chloride, the same chemical that caused the environmental disaster in Ohio, per the Washington Post.

A news release on the report said that America's top producer of vinyl chloride, OxyVinyls, ships up to 36 million pounds of the chemical across nearly 2,000 miles of railways at any given moment, including what is likely to be its longest route, from Texas to New Jersey. 

Toxic-Free Future called OxyVinyls' supply chain "dangerously long," as two major train disasters in the last 12 years involved vinyl chloride produced by the company. 

"These accidents aren't happening every day. They're not happening every month. But it's going to happen again," report co-author Mike Schade from Toxic-Free Future told the Post. "And we think that the best way to prevent the next big disaster involving vinyl chloride is to phase out its production and use."

Why are trains carrying vinyl chloride concerning?

The report found that the toxic cargo threatens hundreds of cities and towns — including eight major population centers, such as Houston and Philadelphia — and about 670,000 children who attend school within a mile of the train's path. 

Vinyl chloride can cause serious health problems with both short- and long-term exposure, such as dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, nervous system effects, and liver cancer. It's classified as a known "human carcinogen" by the Environmental Protection Agency

These health impacts are often felt disproportionately by disadvantaged or vulnerable communities.

"Communities that live near railways and chemical industries that transport or use VC are often people of color and lower income that already face environmental injustice and the poor health outcomes that come with it," Brandy Deason, climate justice coordinator at Air Alliance Houston, said in the report.

"It is time we stopped sacrificing people in the name of industry and economy when we know very well there are VC alternatives that are both cheaper and safer for humans and the environment," she added.

According to Toxic-Free Future, the EPA found that OxyVinyls and its joint venture partner, Orbia, contributed over 7 billion pounds of planet-warming pollution in 2022.

When a train derailment involving vinyl chloride occurs, it can endanger wildlife and the surrounding environment too. Officials estimate that roughly 43,000 animals died after the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment, per USA Today.

What's being done about it?

Last December, the EPA began the process of prioritizing five chemicals, including vinyl chloride, for risk evaluation. 

Toxic-Free Future also launched a campaign urging Home Depot — one of many retailers that carry products containing vinyl chloride — to switch to safer materials. In addition, the Post reported that transportation trade unions are calling for stronger safety standards for railway workers and first responders. 

Individually, we can help prevent environmental disasters involving vinyl chloride by reducing our demand and consumption of plastic products and switching to environmentally friendly alternatives.

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