Beyond East Palestine, report finds widespread toxic vinyl chloride pollution

By Dana Drugmand

When the Norfolk Southern train transporting hazardous material derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3, the subsequent release and explosion of chemicals fouled the air and exposed the community to a toxic cocktail of contaminants, including a substance known to cause cancer called vinyl chloride. More than two months later, air sampling data continues to show elevated levels of vinyl chloride in the area, and residents fear for their health.

A new report released last week shows that what happened in East Palestine was far from an isolated incident, and that many other communities are regularly exposed to vinyl chloride pollution, particularly those living in low-income areas and communities of color.

“It is outrageous that so many communities are being exposed day-in and day-out to the same dangerous chemical and plastic that burned in the Ohio train derailment,” Mike Schade, director of Mind the Store, a program of Toxic-Free Future, said in a statement accompanying the report.

Vinyl chloride is a colorless gas used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics used for such things as pipes, vehicle upholstery, and plastic kitchen ware.

Vinyl chloride contamination is primarily emanating from petrochemical production and waste disposal facilities, according to an investigation by the nonprofit Toxic-Free Future.

The group said it analyzed data collected by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), finding that in 2021, US vinyl chloride and PVC plastic producers released more than 400,000 pounds of vinyl chloride into the air, and that just five companies collectively are the source for more than 97% of the nation’s vinyl chloride air pollution.

Those five – Westlake Chemical, Formosa Plastics, Occidental Chemical, Shintech, and Orbia – collectively manufacture more than 10 billion pounds of vinyl chloride per year, according to Toxic-Free Future.