Environmental groups call on the EPA to ban the toxic chemical vinyl chloride

On Thursday, public health and environmental advocates gathered at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Washington, DC, headquarters to call on the agency to ban vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing chemical used to manufacture PVC plastic.

Vinyl chloride made headlines in January when a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, released 1.1 million pounds of the chemical into the air, water and soil, prompting evacuations and a months-long cleanup effort.

“That accident was a chilling warning that we must act now to ban petrochemicals like vinyl chloride,” Heather McTeer Toney, the executive director of Beyond Petrochemicals, said in a news conference.

After delivering a 27,600-signature petition to the EPA, representatives from local and national environmental groups met with Michal Freedhof, the assistant administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. Vinyl chloride is currently on a list of 106 chemicals the EPA is considering for safety assessment under the Toxic Substances Control Act — a process that the groups in attendance urged the agency to begin in earnest.

“We think it’s long overdue for the EPA to use its existing authority to ban vinyl chloride,” Judith Enck, the president of the nonprofit Beyond Plastics, told Environmental Health News (EHN). Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, Enck explained, the EPA would be able to restrict vinyl chloride without needing congressional approval.

The EPA classified vinyl chloride as a carcinogen in 1974 and barred its use in several applications, including hair spray, drugs and refrigerants. Earlier this year, the agency announced a slew of proposed updates to the Clean Air Act aimed at reducing communities’ cancer risk from air pollutants including vinyl chloride. This proposal is expected to be finalized in March of 2024.

Cancer-causing plastic 

Vinyl chloride is almost exclusively used in the manufacture of PVC plastic, which is found in water piping, medical supplies such as IV tubing and blood bags, electrical insulation, imitation leather, toys and food packaging. At the Thursday news conference, Enck carried a large, PVC rubber ducky as a reminder of the ubiquity of this plastic in everyday products.

Despite its utility, vinyl chloride is a potent carcinogen, linked to the development of a rare form of liver cancer, as well as cancers of the brain, lung, blood and lymph nodes. Chemical plant workers who regularly handle the chemical may suffer blood vessel damage and bone loss in their hands. Exposure has also been linked to miscarriages and low birth weights.

According to a 2005 investigation, the chemical industry was aware of the risks of vinyl chloride in the 1960s and 70s, but chose to suppress and downplay evidence of harm. “The manufacturers of vinyl chloride have known for over 50 years their product is very toxic and they have fought any kind of restrictions,” Enck told EHN, drawing comparisons to the fossil fuel industry’s extensive history of deceit regarding the dangers of climate change.

Environmental injustice 

The majority of the country’s vinyl chloride plants are located in Texas, Kentucky and Louisiana. Many of these facilities are situated near predominantly Black, Brown and low-income areas, such as “Cancer Alley,” a stretch of the Mississippi River nicknamed for its high rates of cancer and other illnesses.

“Vinyl chloride, a dangerous pollutant, is produced, processed, transported, landfilled and incinerated in these communities, which are some of the most underserved and overburdened communities in our nation,” said Almeta Cooper, the national manager for health equity at Mom’s Clean Air Force. “Environmental justice must be more than just words. We must ensure that there is meaningful action taken to protect these vulnerable communities.”

PVC piping dangers

PVC pipes health risk

While chemical plant workers and local residents are most at risk from vinyl chloride exposure, Enck told EHN, the East Palestine derailment shows that no one in the country is fully insulated from its harms.

For Enck’s organization Beyond Plastics, PVC piping is of particular concern. PVC pipes can shed microplastics, and may leach vinyl chloride and chemicals — such as phthalates and organotins — that interfere with human hormones. Such hormone-disrupting chemicals can pose health risks even in miniscule quantities. PVC is more permeable than metal — allowing gasoline and other ground pollutants to penetrate drinking water — and releases toxic dioxins when burned, as in house fires or wildfires.

In November 2021, Congress approved $15 billion for local governments to replace lead pipes with safer alternatives. In an April report, Beyond Plastics urged U.S. municipalities to consider stainless steel or recycled copper in place of PVC.

Speaking with EHN, Enck highlighted other alternatives to PVC plastic, such as wood in place of vinyl siding for houses, and glass, metal and cardboard for food packaging.

At the Thursday event, advocates argued that the fossil fuel industry is ramping up plastic output as a way to remain profitable during a global transition to renewable energy. “What’s happening in the petrochemical area is more and more fossil fuel companies are turning to plastic production, so we’re going to see more and more chemicals like vinyl chloride moving on our nation’s very rickety rail system,” Enck said. “We cannot have another community go through what East Palestine has gone through in the last six months.”