Hey hey ho ho PVC has to go

By Julia Lankisch, Staff Writer

The Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine was a symptom of a much larger problem we have been ignoring for too long. 

Inadequate railroad safety regulations, staffing, and workers’ rights protections aside, there is no good reason to put volatile hazardous materials in any position where they can cause harm to people, animals, and the environment in the way they have been. They have to go. 

This is a big ask, however – toxic substances are much more present in your community than you think they are. So, for now, we have to start with one which poses a large threat to humans and nature alike by virtue of the volume in which is it used and its capacity for damage: polyvinyl chloride (PVC). 

To be clear, the most hazardous substance contained in the train cars that derailed is a liquid called vinyl chloride monomer, or VCM. It is the highly flammable and volatile precursor to PVC, which will go on to make piping, fake leather, vinyl house siding, cable insulation, and flooring, among hundreds of other products. 

The issue is our late-stage capitalist society relies heavily on these materials. We overlook the dangers of transporting VCM and using PVC because it is easy and cheap to produce, it is durable and versatile, and because it has electrical insulation and flame-retardant properties. 

Even if it was safe to transport VCM and other toxic PVC additives, there are a host of disadvantages to PVC that make clear why it must be banned. 

First, it is important to understand why it is so dangerous to produce and transport VCM. First and foremost, it is a group 1 carcinogen, meaning there is extensive evidence proving it causes cancer in humans. Anyone who is exposed to large concentrations of VCM over time has a high risk of developing hepatic angiosarcoma. 

Acute exposure to fumes can cause headaches, sleepiness, dizziness, and nausea. These are consistent with the symptoms reported by East Palestine residents in the weeks after the derailment. 

In terms of the production process itself, making chlorine to produce PVC uses chemicals such as PFAS, mercury, asbestos, and chlorine gas. Inevitably, these substances leak into the environment around PVC plants and workers are constantly exposed to them. 

VCM is also a chlorinated chemical, and when chlorinated chemicals catch fire (which is very possible in any stage of production and transportation), they have the potential to combust into dioxins. Dioxins are among the most hazardous chemicals on Earth to humans and the environment. They are best known for being the primary poison in Agent Orange. 

Not only are dioxins extremely toxic, but they are bioaccumulative and persistent. This means that they will build up in the food chain as contaminated organisms eat each other, and the largest amount of the substance will end up in the top rung which includes humans. They will also stay in our bodies and the environment for years after exposure or consumption. 

Even outside the aforementioned risks, PVC is often mixed with additives that change its hardness, flexibility, and degradation properties. These include, but are not limited to, phthalates, which disrupt the endocrine system and cause reproductive health issues, lead and cadmium, which are linked to brain, kidney, and red blood cell production damage, and organotins, which can cause immune, nervous, endocrine, and reproductive system harm. 

These additives are not chemically bound to the PVC they have been added to. Therefore, over the lifetime of any product with PVC in it, these chemicals will start to leach out into the environment, into our homes, into our bodies, and into the bodies of our children. 

It is clear that our government understands the hazards of exposure to vinyl chloride compounds, as they were banned from use in aerosols in 1974 by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. However, we continue to subsidize fossil fuels used to create plastic, and 50 years after this acknowledgement of the danger of vinyl chloride it is still the 3rd most produced type of plastic in America. 

If the health effects of VCM and PVC on humans are so detrimental, just imagine what they can do to ecosystems. We have doctors, medicine, and healthcare. The fish and the trees do not. They are susceptible to the chemicals we feed them, and many will die as a result. 

While there are disadvantages to all types of plastic, none are nearly so dangerous in all stages of production and use as PVC. It is high time the U.S. follow the example of many other countries with successful economies, such as Canada, Spain, the Czech Republic, and South Korea, to ban the material from use.