End Plastics

East Palestine, Ohio, One Year Later

Many people have heard of plastic as a contaminant and its detrimental effects on our planet. Whether it be food, the air, or animals — plastic pollution’s effects reach far and wide and increasingly they are causing major public health emergencies. 

Toxic chemicals used in plastic production were certainly a central issue following a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3rd, 2023, when thirty-eight cars derailed and eleven of them were found to be carrying plastic-making materials, according to the EPA.

To safely clear the derailment site, the surrounding community was evacuated as the carriages carrying the most dangerous chemicals were subject to a controlled burn, which created a huge plume of deadly-looking smoke. After the fire burned itself out, many people in the surrounding communities complained about toxic smelling fumes and shortness of breath. It was a story that dominated the news cycles for days as America slowly woke up to the fact that poisonous chemicals are routinely freighted by train through domestic communities and small towns — most of which have no idea how close they are to potential disaster.

The EPA was immediately on the case testing for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air and water. VOCs are solid or liquid chemicals that, when part of a chemical reaction, are released into the environment as gasses and may pose short- or long-term health risks. Soon after the fire, the area was declared safe. But local residents were skeptical. 

There was concern over the EPA’s testing methods and the reliability of their chemical detection. Andrew Whelton, a professor of environmental engineering at Purdue, revealed that the trackers used by the EPA (photoionization detectors) were most likely not sensitive enough towards certain chemicals, such as butyl acrylate.  The problems with the EPA’s detections don’t end there. The tests were done to find highly hazardous levels of VOCs, ones that would immediately affect people — but not the less detectable, more irritable levels that could incite long-term reactions. 

Fear Spread

The burn omitted strange smells which hung in the air for days, and nearby creeks revealed an oily sheen as if they were stirred. Many residents, including young children, got sick around the time of the derailment, and stayed sick for weeks or even months. Residents reported everything from rashes to vomiting to irritated eyes in a community survey. The symptoms prompted many locals to move out of  East Palestine temporarily and a few residents started staying at hotels outside of the perceived the “danger zone.”  Zsusza Gyene’s nine-year-old son became violently ill soon after the derailment, and she was just one of the residents who decamped into a hotel.  

Many of those who left saw health conditions improve or disappear immediately after moving out of the area fuelling growing fears about a when–or if–they should l return to East Palestine. The reports of illness spread far and wide, and even some CDC members investigating the chemicals reported feeling ill. Now, residents are worried about the long-term effects of the toxic plastic chemicals that polluted their community. One resident, Jess Conard, likened the lack of knowledge to “a death sentence.

The Details

Some of the chemicals contained in the derailed cars, like vinyl chloride, are already known to be hazardous to humans. The EPA has recognized vinyl chloride as a carcinogen since 1996, and has known about its other negative effects for even longer. Even the sparing use of vinyl chloride has recently been called into reexamination, which means the EPA may have underestimated its harmful effects. This reexamination could potentially result in a partial or full ban on the use of the chemical. 

Nonetheless, this toxic material is still being widely used to manufacture plastic products such as packaging materials, pipes, and cable coatings. Railways that transport vinyl chloride run through numerous communities, and derailments could affect millions of people. Vinyl chloride is a highly combustible material, and a recent article from the Washington Post said trains carrying vinyl chloride could be considered “bomb trains,” since derailment could ignite the hazardous chemical and create a huge explosion.

The Community Acts

The community quickly became frustrated with the “lack of answers” from the EPA and local government. Although the EPA declared certain areas safe, people were clearly still experiencing negative effects after the fire, not to mention those who were unable to return to their homes. To mitigate these concerns, the local government agreed to a town hall-type event, with representatives from Norfolk Southern, which owned the train involved.

But at the last second, Norfolk Southern’s representatives pulled out from the meeting. Frustratingly, it seemed like the government valued the safety and security of the railways more than its own citizens, with the EPA refusing to test people’s homes for chemicals and bureaucracy causing the CDC’s involvement to be delayed.

Additionally, residents are currently concerned about the potential disposal of wastewater from East Palestine through deep injection or treatment/release into nearby streams. Although all organizations involved say that the operations are safe and will have no effect on the community, many are still worried about potential drinking water contamination.

Since the derailment, the community has been wary of organizations such as Norfolk Southern and the EPA that have handled hazardous waste. They don’t want to take any more chances, and don’t want to risk another disaster. Regardless of any safety precautions, the community should not be left in the dark about the process. So the people of East Palestine are speaking out.

They consistently call for action and justice, and continue to pressure officials to prioritize a livable environment over profit. Beyond reactive measures and cleanup, community members increasingly are seeking legislation that could prevent similar incidents in the future. Norfolk Southern had poisoned an entire community, and the risk of future accidents involving substances like vinyl chloride will remain high the government enacts new regulations.

Government Response

The public backlash from the Ohio train derailment led to a bipartisan investigation into the incident and the introduction of the Railway Safety Act. This act would improve the working conditions of rail workers and add additional checks to avoid equipment failure. It would also make it clearer to workers and surrounding communities when trains were carrying hazardous materials. 

Shortly after the bill was pushed to the Senate, though, its movement slowed to a crawl

While the Railway Safety Act is still frozen in place, there’s still hope: the EPA is conducting a new investigation of vinyl chloride which may open the door for change. This would not be possible without the continued pressure from communities affected by the transportation of hazardous materials. 

The EPA’s formal review of vinyl chloride is a critical step forward; investigations such as this are a key part of the EPA’s process of banning or restricting the use of hazardous chemicals. It’s also vital evidence showing that through community advocacy and action, real change can be made. Measures like the formal review would not occur if it were not for the community’s ongoing response. Moreover, the government has not been clear on the effectiveness of their response, and continues to leave people, whether those affected or those susceptible, in the dark.

National communities and organizations need to keep pressuring politicians and the government to continually act on protecting our planet. Without this pressure, we will continue to be left in the dark. Sign the Global Plastic Treaty to force the UN to take effective action against plastic production and acknowledge human health risks associated with microplastics and their additive chemicals. To join the fight for our future and urge officials to do the same, get started by visiting our page for Earth Day 2024 and its theme, Planet vs. Plastics.