East Palestine Makes Clear: We Need to Ban Vinyl Chloride


by Mia DiFelice

When that Norfolk Southern train first derailed in East Palestine, vinyl chloride was one of the top concerns. In the days after, officials on the ground burned more than 100,000 gallons of it from five of the derailed train cars. 

Now, more than a month later, officials have found distressing levels of dioxins, toxic byproducts of burning vinyl chloride, in the soil around East Palestine.

Vinyl chloride and dioxins may have come under the spotlight most recently in February, but they’ve been harming communities for decades. And if our current plastics boom continues unabated, their threat to us will grow.

We can’t let this happen. That’s why Food & Water Action and our allies are calling for a ban on vinyl chloride. 

Vinyl Chloride is a Public Health Nightmare

Vinyl chloride is a colorless, flammable gas used to make PVC, a common plastic. Researchers have linked it to cancers, harm to the nervous system, and birth defects.

There is no safe level of exposure, and yet we find vinyl chloride in nearly every corner of our lives. It’s in our cars, our packaging, the siding on our houses, and the pipes that bring water to our faucets. It’s in our furniture and in the gift cards and toys we give to our children.

We also find vinyl chloride in the water we drink and the food we eat. Notably, it leaches into our water through PVC pipes. Our water supply and farmland are further threatened during chemical spills like that in East Palestine. 

Even worse, as the train derailment reminds us, burning vinyl chloride releases dioxins. These carcinogens can also damage our hormonal, reproductive, developmental, and immune systems. 

Dioxins from industrial processes or accidents like that in East Palestine have contaminated the crops and animals we eat. They can persist for years, and take just as long to travel from the air to soil to food, and ultimately into our bodies.

Making Plastic from Vinyl Chloride Endangers Workers and Communities

Vinyl chloride is used almost entirely by the plastics industry, at great risk to both our health and our climate. 

PVC plastics are harmful throughout their lifecycle, from the raw materials to disposal. These plastics and the vinyl chloride required to make them pose major health risks to workers and surrounding communities. 

Researchers have found vinyl chloride in the air around manufacturing and processing plants, hazardous waste sites, and landfills. The chemical also threatens the communities through which it travels, as we’ve seen in East Palestine.

At the same time, workers exposed to high levels of vinyl chloride have reported a range of health issues. Those include joint and muscle pain and even changes to their finger bones.

Vinyl chloride’s hazards fall especially on low-income communities and communities of color. That’s because much of the country’s vinyl chloride is manufactured in Black and Brown communities in Louisiana, Texas, and Kentucky.

These communities are unfortunately well-acquainted with pollution, largely from the petrochemical and chemical industries. In Louisiana, along one 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River, rates of cancer have risen so high that the region has been dubbed “Cancer Alley.”

Vinyl Chloride and PVC Will Keep Growing If Dirty Industry Gets Its Way

Vinyl chloride isn’t just a public health issue; it’s part of our climate crisis, as well. Fossil fuels, specifically ethane sourced from fracking, are used to produce vinyl chloride.

In 2022, ethane production hit a new monthly record, and that number will only grow if the PVC market expands as predicted.

This trend is likely to worsen thanks to the vinyl industry’s lobbying. Over the years, its leading trade group, the Vinyl Institute, has spent millions on those efforts. For instance, the Insitute has countered efforts pushing the EPA to regulate PVC waste as hazardous.

Right now, it’s pushing for more water systems to use PVC pipes, rather than traditional metal ones. This would risk vinyl chloride contamination in our water supply, endangering public health and our right to safe water.

So far, these efforts are paying off. The four member chemical companies in the Vinyl Institute have all announced multi-million or billion-dollar expansions to their PVC operations in recent years.

What’s more, as we replace fossil power with renewables, the growth of vinyl chloride and plastics would serve as a lifeline to fossil fuel corporations.

That’s already happening in Western Pennsylvania, just 20 miles away from East Palestine. In Beaver County, PA, a Shell cracker plant has recently begun operations turning ethane into plastic. Already, the plant has violated its permits for air pollution — it spewed as many toxic volatile organic compounds in September 2022 as it was permitted for the entire year.

We Can’t Let Vinyl Chloride Pollution Continue

We don’t have to live with vinyl chloride, and we don’t have to let the vinyl lobby or the frackers win. We have alternatives to PVC plastics that we could be using, and we have laws that the EPA could wield to regulate and even ban toxic chemicals. 

So we’re calling on the EPA to ban vinyl chloride, and we’ll keep fighting until all our communities are safe from it.

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Big Oil’s Bet On Plastic Is Gambling With Our Future


CC BY 2.0, Dying Regime / Flickr
by Mia DiFelice

Update (October 25, 2023): This week, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) reintroduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. This bill would be a massive first step to reducing plastic pollution and stopping the fossil fuel industry from locking us into more oil, gas, and plastic production.

The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would ban many single-use, non-recyclable plastic products (like single-use carry out bags) nationwide. It would also require makers of packaging, containers, and food service products to create waste management programs. 

Help us build a safer, healthier, more sustainable future by calling on your representative to support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act!

Although we have a long fight ahead of us to transition off fossil fuels, the tide is turning. Consumers around the world are demanding greener power and more action on climate change. 

Big Oil has read the writing on the wall and has added a new tool to its arsenal — plastics. While public opinion turns against dirty energy, corporations are pushing petrochemicals to keep us hooked on fossil fuels.

Big Oil Is Betting Billions On Plastic

In the 2010s, the fracking boom created such a glut of natural gas that the industry scrambled to find new markets for it. Petrochemical companies were happy to step in. Ethane, a main raw material in many plastics, has doubled production in the U.S. from 2013 to 2021. Desperate to offload the surplus, U.S. companies send it around the world, often at bargain-bin prices. Ethane exported from the U.S. has gone from nonexistent to 300,000 barrels a day. The result — an explosion of plastic. Now, experts expect plastic production and consumption to triple by 2060.

The construction planned to expand the industry needs to stay in the blueprints. From cracker plants to pipelines, this infrastructure is expensive and dangerous. If all the planned projects are completed, emissions from plastics will double by 2050. These projects include 350 chemical plants that would introduce health risks to nearby communities. But since 2010, petrochemical companies have already spent $200 billion to expand plastics manufacturing infrastructure. 

At the same time, public opinion is getting hip to our plastic problem. Cities and states across America are banning certain kinds of single-use plastic. On a global level, Canada, India, France, and many other countries have placed their own bans just this year. Such measures predict shifting prices and future failure. Big Oil’s bet on the industry will entrench billions of dollars into infrastructure that will likely become unprofitable in a few years. 

Plastic Pose Growing Public Health Problems

If allowed to grow, the plastics industry stands to harm our families and communities in so many ways. For one, plastics release toxic chemicals all throughout their life cycle. From volatile organic compounds emitted during fracking, to heavy metals released during recycling, we absorb these toxins by breathing, eating or simply touching them.

Then, there are the pipelines. To make plastics, companies first extract ethane from natural gas liquids. Moving those NGLs requires miles of new pipelines. But NGLs are volatile and flammable, meaning pipelines have a host of health, safety and environmental risks. Yet, most of these lines aren’t regulated, sited or permitted by the federal government. Many states don’t step in, so miles and miles of hazardous pipelines have no oversight at all.

On top of that, the petrochemical industry has a long history of environmental racism. Companies have often cited polluting plants near low-income communities and communities of color. In Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” dozens of petrochemical plants dapple the shores of the Mississippi for 80 miles. The emissions from those plants rain yellow droplets of pollution and kill birds mid-flight. The mostly black and brown residents in the region have some of the greatest risks for cancer in the country.

Despite What Big Oil Tells Us, Recycling Doesn’t Work

For decades, petrochemical companies — often owned by the same oil and gas giants — touted ad campaigns (to the tune of $50 million a year) to keep us buying more plastic. They funded projects and created regulations, signaling that we could solve our plastic problem with some blue bins. But most of what we throw in those blue bins will never see a recycling facility. Only 1 in 10 plastics made from 1950 to 2015 have been recycled. In 2021, that number dropped to 1 in 20. 

Even the plastics that make it to a recycling center can’t be properly recycled. Instead, they’re downcycled, or turned into a lower-quality plastic. After that, they can only be downcycled once or twice more before they have to be tossed into a landfill. 

The newest flavor of the recycling myth goes by “advanced recycling,” which uses chemicals and high heat to break down plastics. The process, which is expensive and emissions-intensive, usually just results in a low-grade fossil fuel. Advanced recycling actually creates more greenhouse gasses than sending the plastic to a landfill or incinerating it. 

Yet, the plastics industry has pushed several states to loosen advanced recycling regulations, or even subsidize them. Taxpayers are funding Big Oil’s schemes to make plastic socially acceptable — when in fact, they’ll just create more problems and worsen climate change. 

We Can’t Let Big Oil Get Away With Plastics

Plastics are a danger to human health and climate. While they have a few important uses, Big Oil is pushing way more plastic than we need. The lie of consumer demand needs to be unraveled. In reality, packaging makes up 40% of produced plastics — which consumers have little say in.

The more Big Oil builds out its infrastructure and floods the market with plastics, the bigger the problem becomes. 

We can stop them in their tracks, starting with:

  1. Banning single-use plastics. These include water bottles, packaging and utensils, and they make up most of plastic waste. They end up in landfills, incinerators and our waterways. Like all plastics, they break down into microplastics, where they move much more easily and stealthily. Now, we find plastic in our sea salt, seafood, beer, honey, sugar and so much more.
  2. Banning fracking and new petrochemical facilities. We’ve known for years that fracking does irreparable damage to our environment and our communities. Petrochemical facilities are just as harmful. They’re also feeding the plastic problem, and stand to make it much, much worse. 

Help us stop Big Oil’s Plan B. Tell your members of Congress to support the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act!