Everywhere Toxic Chemicals All at Once

How an Ohio train derailment exposes the urgency of the plastics crisis 

As a black cloud as large as a town billowed over the farmland of East Palestine, Ohio, the country watched in horror. Scientists and advocates – who for years have worked to get toxic chemicals out of our homes and workplaces – were particularly horrified because they knew how predictable, devastating, and avoidable these accidents are.  

The Norfolk Southern train that sped through the small town near the Pennsylvania border, population 4,700, was 1.7 miles long – one of the new monster trains on the rails with only two crew members and a trainee managing the load. The train carried 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride, an ingredient in PVC plastic, the third most common plastic globally. Thirty-eight of the 149 cars derailed; some burned. Concerned about a catastrophic explosion, authorities later released vinyl chloride from five tank cars, letting it evaporate from pits and burning it in a giant fireball that towered over the community.

When you burn vinyl chloride, you get phosgene, a lethal gas used as a chemical weapon in WWI, and hydrochloric acid, which is highly corrosive to the lungs. You also create dioxins, long-lived chemicals that are toxic in the tiniest amounts, cause cancer in every species tested, and are linked to many conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, nervous system disorders, immune and hormone system disruption, and multi-generational impacts. Dioxins are long-lasting and can contaminate soil and accumulate in the plants and animals exposed to them.

The accident has also created thousands of tons of liquid waste and contaminated soil being shipped to other communities, including Belleville and Romulus in Michigan, highlighting the interstate trade in toxic waste that shifts hazards to new transport routes and new disposal sites, often in poorer communities. 

Nearly a month after the derailment, EPA finally ordered Norfolk Southern to test the community for dioxin contamination. Community members are understandably terrified about their health and future, and there are no definitive answers yet. Advocates have insisted on a comprehensive and transparent testing plan funded by the company. 

The Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio is just the latest tragedy stemming from the plastics crisis. We are all downstream from the poison plastic firehose. It poisons our towns, workers, food and water supply, and bodies. We are drowning in it. Americans in ever larger numbers are demanding solutions, an international treaty is now being negotiated that promises to limit plastic production, and models of change are sprouting up everywhere. 

Of the seven major types of plastic, PVC is often considered the worst 

PVC has been the focus of restrictions because it is toxic at every stage of its life cycle and is loaded with toxic additives that leach from the final product and can enter the environment and our bodies. We all have plastic additives in our bodies. PVC is hard to recycle, can contaminate other recycling loads, and can generate extremely toxic chemicals if burned. Recent reports have linked some vinyl production to forced labor (Learn more in Poison Plastic: The Toxic Life Cycle of PVC). 

PVC manufacturing plants are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color. PVC production has contributed to abandoned towns and health risks in nearby communities. Many of these communities are part of an 85-mile-long ribbon of land called "Cancer Alley," which accounts for 25% of the petrochemical production in the United States. A predominantly Black area, it is surrounded by chemical plants making the plastics we use every day and poisoning the residents while doing it. The country's highest cancer risks from air toxics are in this area. But the industry is also expanding to other areas, including emerging plastic hubs in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, increasing the potential to create new cancer alleys.

PVC has one thing going for it, however – it is cheap. And the oil and gas industry sees plastic, including PVC, as part of the oil industry's growth strategy to continue to reap huge profits while finding another market for their product.  

Although PVC is at the bottom of the hierarchy, it is part of a broader plastics crisis that now threatens the planet 

Global plastics production doubled from 2000 to 2019 and is expected to triple by 2060. Plastics account for 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly two-thirds of plastic waste comes from plastics with lifetimes of under five years, and almost half from single-use plastic. This month, a scientific commission recommended banning or severely restricting the manufacture and use of unnecessary plastics. 

The report noted that plastic causes disease and premature mortality at every stage of its life cycle, disproportionately harming vulnerable, low-income, and minority communities, particularly children. Toxic chemicals in plastic routinely detected in people are known to increase the risk of miscarriage, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancers. Micro- and nano plastic particles are threatening the ocean on which we all depend for oxygen, food, and livelihoods.

The report notes the risk comes from the entire life cycle of production – from living or working near oil and gas extraction, working in plastic manufacturing plants or living near them, eating food heated in plastic packaging, or breathing the air near incinerators where plastic waste gets burned as trash. The risk also comes from hazardous chemicals – some intended for plastics – that travel by rail and road through thousands of towns in the country and derail and crash with alarming frequency.

An odor still pervades East Palestine. Residents have compared it to turpentine, or bleach that 'sticks to your nose.' It creates a metallic taste in the mouth. The headaches, confusion, rashes, chest congestion, cough, nausea, and vomiting reported by residents are all symptoms of exposure to several of the volatile chemicals known to have been released—butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, and vinyl chloride. Communities that host rail lines can't keep trains out, can't demand extra safety measures, and often don't know what trains are carrying.  

Residents still report a chemical sheen on parts of small creeks that run through town, and "chickens dying, cats coughing, and lethargic dogs throwing up, others are unable to use their hind legs." Experts have urged area farmers and residents to test their wells over the next few months for the presence of the spilled chemicals, including vinyl chloride, to protect the health of humans and livestock, and to test surface soils downwind for dioxin levels, particularly where food crops are to be grown.

There have been 106 train derailments that have released hazardous chemicals since 2015, about one each month for the last eight years (see Poison Rails: Toxic Transport in America).

It doesn't have to be this way

Americans are demanding alternatives, and the sentiment is bipartisan. A whopping 73% of voters support a halt to building new plastic production facilities and support policies that limit the use of single-use plastic. Eighty-two percent of voters support protecting people in neighborhoods affected by pollution from nearby plastic production facilities. Eight in 10 voters are concerned about single-use plastic products and are in favor of requiring companies to do a host of things, including reducing plastic packaging and foodware, increasing reusable packaging, and holding companies accountable for plastic waste. 

In Part II of this article, we'll talk about the solution to plastic pollution and what steps we can take now to get there.