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Planetary Health | Should PVC be phased out?

Six months ago (February 14, 2023), a 150-car freight train with 11 cars carrying hazardous chemicals including 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride, derailed near East Palestine, Ohio. Fearing the worst, the experts on the scene, in their wisdom, decide to burn and release some of the chemicals into the air through a controlled explosion. Carried in five cars, the vinyl chloride gas remnants thus escaped into the air. Reported ill effects on close-by residents included rashes and headaches.

Inhaling such a gas is, of course, a risk but it can also convert to highly toxic phosgene, a gas causing an estimated 85 percent of the 91,000 gas deaths in WWI. So why is it being transported all the way from Deer Park, Texas to Ohio and beyond? Very simply because that is where some of the chemical plants producing PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic are located — in this case Fredericktown, New Jersey.

Production of vinyl chloride requires combining, at high temperature, chlorine with ethylene, obtained from oil. This is then polymerized to form PVC resin. The major producers of vinyl chloride are Occidental Chemical, Shintech, Westlake Chemical, Formosa Plastics and Orbia. Of these Oxy Vinyl, an Occidental Chemical subsidiary, produced the vinyl chloride in three of the rail cars that derailed and Shintech the PVC in another three.

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) considers vinyl chloride a known carcinogen. Thus the fact that the community downwind was black adds a racial component to the tragedy.

Occidental Chemical reported releasing 59,679 pounds of vinyl chloride into the air from its plants in Texas, Niagara Falls (Canada) and New Jersey in 2021. In the same year, Shintech released 45,250 pounds from its plants in Louisiana and Texas. Thus many communities are being exposed daily to a deadly chemical that is a known carcinogen. All of which prompts the question, should PVC, a recognized poison plastic be banned?

If the community downwind from the train derailment was black, it is also a fact that local residents are predominantly low-income black people alongside vinyl chloride production facilities in Texas, Kentucky and along an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Cancer rates in the latter corridor are so much higher than the rest of the US that it is often called “Cancer Alley”.

Cancer Alley. Credit: Julie Dermansky

The accident should also have brought some focus on a poorly maintained rail system where a train derails without any immediate cause. Judith Enck, president of ‘Beyond Plastics,’ an advocacy group, and a former regional administrator for the EPA, asks why toxic vinyl chloride should be transported at all across half the country on an obviously ‘rickety rail system.’ Profits appear to have priority over safety.

Another problem with PVC is that dioxins are formed when chlorine is burned during its production. These compounds can accumulate in human bodies and in the environment for years. They have been linked to heart disease, diabetes, nervous system disorders, and can also be endocrine disrupters interfering with the body’s hormones. Moreover, disposal of PVC waste in incinerators (20 million pounds in 2021) is highly suspect.

PVC plastic also contains toxic additives like lead, cadmium and phthalates, not just in pipes but, believe it or not, in credit cards and even in the quintessential children’s bath toy, the yellow rubber duck. Growing children are particularly vulnerable to toxic chemical exposure be it lead or something else.

At the very least, one is obliged to ask, is it simply time for an exhaustive study of PVC and its uses? And secondly, should stringent rules be enforced against its disposal in incinerators?


Authors: Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

First published: Modern Diplomacy


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