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The tragic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio highlights the negative impact of plastics on the environment and human health. The derailed train was carrying a number of toxic chemicals, namely vinyl chloride, the primary ingredient in PVC or polyvinyl chloride. PVC is a ubiquitous plastic material used in everything from building materials to shower curtains and food packaging. While PVC is generally recognized as a safe material, the monomer vinyl chloride is so toxic that OSHA regulations seriously limit human exposure. Their workplace guidelines require that employees do not exceed exposure to vinyl chloride at concentrations greater than 1 parts per million (ppm) over an 8-hour period, to 5 ppm over 15 minutes and that no one is exposed to vinyl chloride by direct contact with its liquid form.

According to a lawsuit brought against the company transporting the chemicals, approximately 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride were on the train that derailed.

Furthermore, on February 6, officials oversaw a controlled burn of the vinyl chloride, which experts said could release more toxins, phosgene and hydrogen chloride, into the air. The train was also carrying other toxic substances such as ethylene glycol monobutyl, butyl acrylate, and ethylhexyl acrylate.

Experts point to how these chemicals were released in extraordinary amounts and how chronic exposure can lead to serious health concerns such as headaches in the near term and a rare form of liver cancer in the long term. The extent of the environmental and public health impact from this disaster will be difficult to quantify immediately as the chemicals seeped into the soil, groundwater and local watershed, where streams and rivers can carry it far downstream into other ecosystems. While the health impacts on humans are still unknown and may not be fully understood for years down the road, there have been cases of wildlife dying in the days following the spill.

While the train derailment in East Palestine could be seen as an accident of monumental proportions, the truth of the matter is that these kinds of disasters are unfortunately frequent. Industry accidents involving toxic materials have caused numerous environmental and public health disasters over the last several decades.

The East Palestine train derailment highlights that while the end product, in this case PVC, may be generally considered safe, the rest of its lifecycle is often anything but. Not only is there the chance of human and environmental exposure in the workplace or in an accident, these plastics also take up to 1,000 years to decompose at the end of their lifecycle and begin to leach chemicals as they do, impacting water and soil health for generations to come.

East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway is committed to working with the EPA to restore the community and ensure its future safety and health. The EPA has been working in conjunction with local and state partners in a myriad of efforts from robust air quality to municipal water supply testing. Norfolk Southern Railway has committed to $1 million in community support as a “down payment” on their contribution to rebuilding the town. The goal is to ensure safety, and help East Palestine recover and thrive, from cleaning the site to working to test the area’s water, air and soil to forge a path forward1.

Renegade Plastics’ proprietary polypropylene-based alternative to PVC and polyethylene fabrics were designed specifically to avoid the detrimental impacts of these plastic fabrics throughout their lifecycle. Our coated fabrics are free from lead, phthalates, dioxins, PFAS, VOCs and heavy metals, and is safer for people, plants, animals, and the environment. Renegade Plastics’ alternative to PVC is also fully recyclable and easier to transition to alternative plastic resins sourced from biological and carbon capture sources when the technology is ready. We help our partners find a way to recycle or upcycle their Renegade Plastics polypropylene fabrics at the end of their lifecycle.

Our thoughts are with the people of East Palestine and the surrounding areas. We hope that this tragedy and ecological disaster awaken industry leaders to the risks involved in utilizing highly toxic chemicals in manufacturing and serve as a reminder that there is a better way to ensure the future health of our people and planet.

1 Ohio train derailment: EPA administrator visits East Palestine, asks residents to ‘trust the government’, KMA Land, February 2023

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