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East Palestine Train Derailment A Toxic Reminder Of Our Dangerous Dependence on Plastics

The carcinogen Vinyl Chloride that the train carried is used to make PVC – one of the most common and environmentally damaging plastics.
Photo courtesy of Ohio Citizen Action.

When 50 train cars on a Norfolk Southern Railroad derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on the border of Pennsylvania, the trains carried a variety of highly toxic chemical substances such as Vinyl Chloride, Ethylene Glycol mono butyl, Ethylhexyl Acrylate, and Isobutylene, according to ABC News, releasing these compounds into the atmosphere and waterways. Many of these toxins when vaporized are known to enter the body by inhalation. Government agencies evacuated anyone living within a 30-mile radius but then fairly quickly lifted the evacuation and stated that there is no looming threat. 

It’s strikingly coincidental that the incident happened geographically right where the recent Netflix feature, White Noise was filmed. Based on Don Dellio’s 1985 novel, the book depicts a family evacuated due to an “Airborne Toxic Event.” The event was the result of a train car collision, much like the one that just happened right here in our region. Is this life imitating art or just life imitating a nightmare? So, let’s break this down a bit.  

READ: Moving Beyond the Plague of Plastics

Five of the train cars carried Vinyl Chloride (VC). Almost all of the VC we manufacture in the united states is used for making Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC). Yes, that stuff we make pipes from but also any packaging that has the chasing arrow symbol with a 3 in the center. PVC also has many industrial uses. These compounds are found in lubricants, heat stabilizers, biocides, and impact stabilizers. We also use a ton of it in textiles, every stylish faux leather garment or synthetic leather shoe likely contains PVC. Medical supplies contain PVC, credit card machines, and even wind turbines. Global use exceeds 40 million tons

Our economy is completely predicated on making and selling and mitigating toxic chemicals. We already know these materials are carcinogenic. According to Greenpeace

“PVC is the most environmentally damaging plastic. The PVC lifecycle – its production, use, and disposal – results in the release of toxic, chlorine-based chemicals. These toxins are building up in the water, air, and food chain.”

I would also like to note that when vinyl chloride gets into the environment it often converts into formaldehyde. The Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine reports that long-term or concentrated exposure could cause liver cancer, brain cancer, and lung cancer. If that wasn’t bad enough this chemical is also in the family of clastogens, a mutagenic agent that disrupts our DNA, it actually breaks and rearranges our chromosomes, and this can affect not only our health but we are passing this legacy down to our children in more ways than one. 

Many brands have made the decision to go PVC-free. Companies like Volkswagen and IKEA are among the corporations that have made the switch. 

According to Safer States, last year the U.S. Plastic Pact agreed to include PVC and polystyrene to the list of Problematic and Unnecessary Materials List for voluntary elimination by 2025. That’s just a few short years away and it appears that the Plastic Industry is blowing a lot of smoke, quite literally. All of the plastics producers tote their production goals and there is little indication of halting, or even limiting the usage of these hazardous chemicals. 

Right here in Pennsylvania, the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community (BCMAC) shines the spotlight on the new Shell Cracker Plant. They have created a community reporting tool to track the negative impacts on their community imposed by this plant. What are they doing there? Well, they are turning fracked gas into plastic and I think it’s a safe bet to surmise that this is why we are transporting vinyl chloride through our state. X9 vQ61sg2jOeG6nCz7TKlgSFNdMuT3vZxjxRFl4xBk6aaYK08Su3obyuvwWaUKj rscwBypa2wNWRa6dOa2SagzVk8O4HjaPqfXualP MaG0Yk u TV7sHyU9Ps2 - Bucks County Beacon - East Palestine Train Derailment A Toxic Reminder Of Our Dangerous Dependence on Plastics

So there we have it, a full circle. I like to add a call to action (CTA) at the end of my columns because I do believe that it’s everyday people who make this world better or worse. Here’s an easy task. Peek at the bottom of your yogurt or sour cream container, or really any food container. If you see a “Number 3” with the chasing arrow around it, take a picture and add the company or store where it was purchased, then add the hashtags #cutthePVC, #buckscountybeacon and #plastic. I am curious about what kind of Twitter storm we can serve up. 

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Alisa Shargorodsky

Alisa Shargorodsky

Bucks County’s Alisa Shargorodsky is the principal of ECHO Systems (www.ourechosystem.com), an S Corporation & Non-profit whose focus is the design and implementation of reuse models that drastically reduce single-use plastic waste while developing local infrastructure in Philadelphia to enrich circularity. ECHO aims to improve equity in underserved communities through green jobs while providing useful and valuable education through a variety of channels.

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