By now you may have seen pictures of the catastrophe that is unfolding in East Palestine, Ohio. Plumes of smoke billowing into the air showcase the result of an assisted release of toxic chemicals, designed to avoid a large explosion. This may seem unfortunate for the communities who live near this city, but the issue is actually directly related to products we all have in our homes, as some of the most hazardous chemicals are inputs to common products like children’s toys, shower curtains, building materials used to make flooring and more.
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Quick Primer on What Happened
On February 3rd, 2023, a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, causing extensive environmental damage to the air, soil and impacting the water table providing drinking water to surrounding communities. The train derailment is not uncommon as the New York Times reported, noting approximately 1,000 similar accidents happening each year. They show that while train derailments have decreased since the 1970s, the volume of hazardous chemicals being transported as increased.
The train, which was carrying a variety of freight, including chemicals and hazardous materials, was traveling through the area when it derailed. At least 20 cars left the tracks, and several of them caught fire, leading to a massive blaze that could be seen from miles away. Five of the cars contained vinyl chloride and 15 others contained hazardous materials.
Vinyl chloride is a gas used to make PVC plastic (deemed the ‘poison plastic’) which is used in a variety of applications for products in our homes: children’s toys like dolls and bouncy balls, shower curtains, inflatable pools, vinyl flooring, PVC windows, and various packaging.
Anti-Clean Chatter Ignores the Lifecycle of a Product
Some of the online chatter deems any conversations around toxic chemicals in consumer products as fear-mongering (frequently citing the ‘dose makes the poison‘ as a justification for continued use and exposure), unfortunate moments like this clearly showcase why we need to consider the full lifecycle of a chemical when determining if it is “safe”.
While very few scientists (maybe except those representing the chemical industry) would argue that vinyl chloride is toxic, PVC plastic exposure in our homes remain a health and environmental threat. Research shows that childhood exposure to vinyl flooring increases the risk of asthma. Heavy metals and plasticizer chemicals are often added to PVC plastic which are linked to harming the developing brain and hormone disruption, respectively. And the incineration of PVC plastic releases dioxin, one of the most toxic substances on earth, to nearby communities (this happens daily in the United States).
The science supports banning and removing PVC from consumer products in our homes. Even still, for the naysayers out there, the train derailment showcases larger issues.
The production, transportation, use and disposal of toxic chemicals are all important when we talk about “safety”. For many, the conversation is fixated on how we use products in our home and whether or not they present a threat. This type of thinking misses the larger conversation about how we want to address and be stewards of chemicals that are made in communities that bear the brunt of toxic air, water and soil, most of which are low income and communities of color. Or what happens when you throw that baby doll in the trash (or donate it to Goodwill and it ends up in the trash), only to be incinerated releasing toxic gases for nearby residents?
These exposures are real and continue to overexpose some of the most vulnerable communities in the U.S. Is this a health issue, environmental issue and human rights? Yes. Yes and Yes. To make things worse, in 2017 the Trump Administration rolled back Obama era legislation specifically designed to increase the safety of trains carrying hazardous materials, showcasing how important public policy is when considering how to tackle these issues.
The East Palestine train derailment is a stark reminder of the dangers posed by the transportation of hazardous materials and should call on all of us to push for stronger federal oversight of safe train transport, reduce our overall dependence on toxic chemicals, and skip past the reductive thinking when people say toxic chemicals in consumer products aren’t a “thing”.
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