In 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency flagged vinyl chloride — a hazardous chemical that’s used to make PVC pipes and other plastic products — for further assessment and potential restrictions under the Toxic Substances Control Act, a federal chemical safety law. But it’s taken nearly a decade for the agency to begin that assessment.
The EPA announced last month that it’s launching a 12-month evaluation period for five hazardous plastic- and petrochemical-related substances, including vinyl chloride. It’s the first step in a potentially yearslong process that could lead to a nationwide ban.
“It’s very welcome news, and something that seems so common-sense,” said Emily Jeffers, a senior attorney for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. The move is long overdue, she added — vinyl chloride has been known to be a human carcinogen since 1974. Chronic exposure is linked to liver cancer, and high concentrations may cause lung and kidney irritation and central nervous effects like memory loss.
Although the health and environmental risks from vinyl chloride have been known for decades, the chemical exploded into public consciousness last February when a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The train had been carrying hundreds of thousands of pounds of vinyl chloride, along with a handful of other chemicals like butyl acrylate and ethylhexyl acrylate. These chemicals spilled into the soil and groundwater, contaminating some bodies of water and killing thousands of fish.
The vinyl chloride that didn’t spill was burned off by first responders in an effort to avoid an explosive chemical reaction; vinyl chloride is highly flammable. Experts later questioned whether that intentional burning was necessary, and it may have contributed to adverse health effects for East Palestine residents, including headaches, coughs, and skin irritation.
Jess Conard, Appalachia director for the nonprofit Beyond Plastics and a resident of East Palestine, said the disaster made her “extremely ill” and affected the rest of her family, too. In the months following the derailment, one of her kids was diagnosed with asthma, and her husband began taking medication for worsening migraines.
“We’ve had no option to test our bodies for chemicals, no place to call to report symptoms that we feel are related to the derailment,” Conard told Grist.
The disaster made international headlines, injecting new urgency into environmental advocates’ call for a phaseout of vinyl chloride and lighting a fire under the EPA. In its aftermath, many groups also called for reduced production of PVC — for things like pipes, construction materials, and vinyl fabrics — noting that more than 95 percent of vinyl chloride is produced for these plastic products.
“As long as PVC production continues, the risk of vinyl chloride spills will persist,” wrote three experts in a February 2023 New York Times op-ed.
Banning vinyl chloride would do more than reduce spill risks; it would also address deleterious effects associated with the production, use, and disposal of vinyl chloride and PVC. For example, decades of evidence shows that workers in vinyl chloride and PVC facilities face elevated risks of cancer, although chemical companies have sought to downplay or suppress this evidence. Then, during their lifetime, PVC products — including pipes that convey drinking water to homes — can leach or offgas hazardous chemicals like dioxins and phthalates, as well as vinyl chloride itself. And when PVC is thrown away or incinerated — it’s almost never recycled — it can release hazardous air emissions and toxic ash.
What’s more, people living near vinyl chloride and PVC facilities tend to be disproportionately poor and nonwhite. According to one analysis from the nonprofit Toxic-Free Future, 63 percent of those living within a 3-mile radius of vinyl chloride or PVC production and disposal facilities are people of color. These residents earn an annual income of $23,747 per capita, compared to the national average of about $40,000.
Ned Monroe, president and CEO of an industry trade group called the Vinyl Institute, said in a statement that his organization is “fully prepared to work with the EPA” during its vinyl chloride assessment, expressing confidence that the chemical will continue to be produced. “We believe this risk evaluation will further assure that the production of vinyl chloride and use of PVC products are safe,” he said.
Four major U.S. vinyl chloride producers — AGC Chemicals, Formosa Plastics, Olin Corporation, and Orbia — did not respond to Grist’s request for comment. Two other major producers, Westlake Chemical and Occidental Petroleum Corporation, referred Grist to the Vinyl Institute’s statement.
Despite the EPA’s new efforts, a complicated review process means manufacturers will still have plenty of time before the EPA devises any kind of new regulation. First, the agency will spend the next nine to 12 months deciding whether vinyl chloride should be classified as a “high-priority substance” — meaning that it may pose an “unreasonable risk” to people’s health and the environment. Assuming the chemical meets that threshold — and the EPA expects it will — the agency will initiative a more thorough risk evaluation, gathering input from chemical manufacturers, scientists, and the public. Finally, “as soon as practicable” but no more than three and a half years later, the EPA will publish its final determination in the Federal Register, including a specific date for companies to comply with any new rules.
In the meantime, advocacy groups say there are plenty of alternatives to PVC, the main material vinyl chloride is made for. PVC water pipes, for example, can be replaced with pipes made from copper or stainless steel.
To Conard, with Beyond Plastics, these alternatives should be rolled out immediately, given the known dangers of vinyl chloride. “It’s insane to me to think that … we run this toxic chemical through town after town on a bomb train on a rickety rail line,” she said. “We have sustainable alternatives that would not poison our drinking water. Why don’t we use them?”