Guest column: Protecting industrial workers from toxic chemicals

February started with news that’s all too familiar in the United States: An incident involving highly toxic industrial chemicals sparked a large fire, threatening an explosion, forcing evacuations, and putting workers and community members directly in harm’s way. In this case, the danger came from a derailed train in Ohio that was hauling cancer-causing vinyl chloride, used to make certain types of plastic; toxic phosgene, an industrial chemical that was also used as a chemical weapon in World War I; and other substances.

This chemical disaster posed a threat to rail workers, first responders, and community members, and after a controlled burn to prevent an explosion, reported fish kills, and the discovery of additional toxic chemicals in some of the train cars, lingering questions remain about the long-term hazards facing community residents. It’s one of many high-profile fires, spills, leaks, explosions, and other industrial incidents to have made the news over the years. But extreme, acute threats like the Ohio derailment aren’t the only toxic chemical dangers facing workers and surrounding communities.

Many chronic, lower-level exposures happen in workplaces every day, posing significant but far more hidden risks to workers, their families, and their communities. Toxic exposures in industrial facilities and other settings can cause a range of health problems. These include nervous system effects like headaches, dizziness, confusion, and memory loss; cancer; breathing problems including coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and asthma attacks; skin irritation and rashes; and reproductive and developmental effects such as infertility, birth defects, and other health problems.