The Importance of Government Legislation: PVC Hazards and Chemical Policy Reform


By Samantha Stahl

So you’ve decided to start living a PVC-free life.  You have finally gotten fed up with unsafe and unhealthy chemicals and are officially taking the steps to rid yourself of them for good.  You’ve done all of the research on why PVC and phthalates are bad for you and your family, and now, armed with knowledge, you are embarking on a new, guilt-free outlook on life.  You send your kids to school with binders and lunch-boxes that are PVC-free, buy them skin care products and fragrances that aren’t made with harmful plastics and leads, and you think your cork floors look better than their low cost would suggest.  And while you don’t work directly with PVC, you take small steps to move your office towards cleaner living as well.

But is this enough?

While consumer responsibility and choice is extraordinarily important in moving the market towards safer and healthier products for our daily lives, it may not be enough to protect us from the harmful effects of PVC.  Large scale change can really only be brought about with a delicate balance between individual actions and responsible legislation.  So while making sure that you and your family are exposed to as little toxins as possible is a goal worth the effort, you may still be vulnerable to the effects of the very toxic chemicals you thought you had banished from your daily life

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The latest news on the poison plastic: what every parent needs to know


The bad news on vinyl, the poison plastic, and phthalates keeps on mounting.

The more I learn, the more I wonder, why are we still allowing this hazardous plastic in our schools and homes?

Here are some of the most recent developments that every parent needs to know.

First responders file lawsuit over vinyl chloride disaster

In response to the December vinyl chloride disaster, which sent over a cloud of over 20,000 gallons of vinyl chloride into the air (originally destined for OxyVinyls in NJ), a group of first responders have filed a lawsuit over this toxic exposure.  NBC Philadelphia reports:

“A class action lawsuit was filed today relating to the Paulsboro, New Jersey train derailment and chemical spill that forced hundreds of people from their homes and left dozens sick last year.

The plaintiffs include more than 100 first responders, young children, and property owners who allege they sustained injuries and damages after the hazardous chemical spill… First responders claim that Conrail representatives advised them throughout the day that they did not need breathing masks or other personal protective equipment, despite high readings of vinyl chloride in the air. The suit states they later underwent extensive medical testing that showed high levels of vinyl chloride in their urine.”

Vinyl chloride is the basic building block of PVC, used to make vinyl flooring in our nation’s schools, hospitals and homes.  You can’t make this plastic without this cancer-causing chemical.

The latest science: vinyl chemicals toxic to our health

As families and first responders have been suing over vinyl chloride epxousre, more scientific studies have been published showing that vinyl chemicals are harmful to our health.  Some notable studies in recent months include:

  • Research funded by the US Department of Defense found phthalates, used to make vinyl flooring soft and flexible, may contribute to disease even generations after exposure. They report that, Observations demonstrate that a mixture of plastic derived compounds, BPA and phthalates, can promote epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of adult onset disease. “
  • Only a few weeks after I blogged on new studies linking vinyl chemicals to asthma and obesity, researchers in China found a link between phthalates and obesity in school children.
  • Researchers in Ireland found potentially hazardous nanomaterials leach from PVC food packaging into food: “An exposure assessment revealed that human exposure to silver (assuming a worst case scenario that all silver is in its most harmful nanoform), is likely to be below current migration limits for conventional migrants and a provisional toxicity limit; however it is acknowledged there is still considerable uncertainty about the potential harmful effects of particles at the nanoscale.”

Policies to protect our kids from poisonous chemicals

On the policy front, the big news is the reintroduction of the Safe Chemicals Act by Senators Lautenberg and Gillibrand (honored to have her as my Senator here in NY, thank you very much :) ), which will go a long way in protecting American families from unnecessary toxic chemicals like phthalates.  Yesterday, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a news release announcing their endorsement of these common sense health safeguards.

As chemical policy reform continues to be debated here in the US, at the international level, Denmark has just unveiled a comprehensive new strategy to address phthalates in consumer products.

As part of the strategy, the Danish EPA will commence evaluation of the information available about the most common phthalates. And this may very well lead to new bans or other measures if necessary, the Minister for the Environment pledges.”

Pressure mounting to eliminate vinyl and phthalates nationwide

Meanwhile, the market movement away from vinyl and phthalates continues.  For instance, EPEAT has recently announced new standards for printers and imaging equipment, which rewards PVC avoidance in electronics – which should have a huge impact on the electronics sector.

Just yesterday, the San Francisco Travel Association announced that all new street banners around the convention center will be completely free of PVC, due to the hazards PVC poses from production to use to disposal.

“San Francisco has always been a city of firsts when it comes to sustainability and now that extends to our city’s street banners. I’m pleased to see the San Francisco Travel Association embrace our city’s goals of zero waste and toxics reduction by eliminating the use of PVC, a harmful and non-recyclable material, and up-cycling the banners as well,” said Melanie Nutter, director San Francisco Department of the Environment.

Last and certainly not least, CHEJ and our friends at the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families campaign have launched a new Mind the Store campaign to urge the nation’s top ten retailers to eliminate the hazardous 100 chemicals, which includes phthalates, vinyl chloride, and a number of other chemicals unique to this poison plastic.  Many retailers, such as Target, have already taken steps to phase out PVC, but much more is still needed. Read all about what bloggers are saying about the new campaign, who traveled to stores nationwide urging them to get these nasty chemicals out of their products.


Phew, that’s a lot to report on!

Anything important I missed?  Would love to hear other new developments!

Till next time.  Your humble plastics crusader, Mike.


What You Might Have Missed Over (and since) the Holidays


The past few months have been a real doozy for the vinyl chemical industry.

While you were probably indulging in a bit too much holiday egg nog or prancing underneath the mistletoe, the vinyl chemical industry was in hot water from New Jersey to Delaware to California.

“These individuals can never know how much and for how long they were exposed to vinyl chloride, a highly toxic gas known to cause fatal cancer and liver damage,” the chairman stated.

The biggest news was no doubt the train cars carrying vinyl chloride heading to OxyVinyls that derailed in Paulsboro, NJ. The accident was nothing short of a major environmental and occupational health disaster. One of the trains released 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, which formed a cloud of toxic gas that drifted into homes and businesses throughout the community.  More than 70 people were hospitalized after the vinyl chloride release. Air monitoring found very high levels of this chemical in the community. Hundreds of families were then forced to shelter in place and eventually evacuate their homes for days.   Since then, it’s been revealed that first responders were exposed to high levels of vinyl chloride, as it’s shown up in their bodies.  Thanks in part by the fine folks over at OxyVinyls (more on Oxy below).  You can read more about the train disaster in this op-ed I authored for the NJ Star Ledger (the largest paper in NJ!).

The same week that Oxy’s vinyl chloride was poisoning the air of Paulsboro, vinyl manufacturer Formosa Plastics was fined by the state of Delaware more than $70,000 for various air pollution violations at their plant in Delaware City.  It’s not the first time Formosa has been in hot water for violating the law.

In California the US Customs and Border Protection seized 35,000 toxic rubber (vinyl) duckies, which were in violation of the federal Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act for containing elevated levels of phthalates.  According to the feds:

“they arrived from China dressed as Santa, Snowman, Gingerbread man, Reindeer and Penguin, all 35,712, but their cute holiday flair did not deflect the scrutiny of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and import specialists, at the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport.”

And that was just in December!

What will 2013 bring for the vinyl industry?

The past few weeks have shown 2013 will not be much easier for the vinyl chemical industry.

Down in Georgia, a recycling company has reduced their stockpile of PVC, after more than 400 firefighters had to battle a fire at the plant.

“It’s been almost six months since Chattooga County, Ga., was hit by its largest fire in three decades, when more than 400 firefighters battled a blaze at a plastics recycling plant in Berryton, Ga.  One thing has changed since then: The North Georgia Textile Supply Co. has whittled down its stockpile of a potentially toxic type of plastic: polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. When PVC burns and firefighters spray water on it, a cloud of chlorine gas can result. Since the fire, North Georgia Textile Supply Co. has reduced the amount of PVC at the recycling facility in the old Berryton yarn mill three miles southwest of Summerville, Ga.”

EPA published the latest toxic release inventory (TRI) data, and their latest findings show that 3 of the top 5 dioxin polluters in the country were vinyl companies: OxyVinyls, Dow Chemical, and Westlakes Vinyl (with Oxy and Dow #1 and #2).

New scientific studies published continue to underscore what we know – vinyl chemicals are toxic to our health.  Studies have found dioxin delays the onset of puberty in boys, phthalates in the bodies of ants, and organotins (which are used to “stabilize” vinyl) linked to obesity, even in the grandchildren of those exposed.  Nick Kristof wrote a fantastic column about this new study in last week’s New York Times.

Finally, WFPL radio ran a heartbreaking and extremely powerful story about the families of vinyl workers who died from liver cancer, after being exposed to high levels of vinyl chloride.  This here says it all:

“But it’s too late for the workers who have already died from angiosarcoma or are suffering from liver disease. Janet Crecelius Johnson wonders why B.F. Goodrich couldn’t have erred on the side of caution. Her husband Revis was diagnosed with cancer a year to the day after he retired. He had worked night shifts for nearly 40 years, and was looking forward to spending more time with his family.

“Every time there’s a wedding, every time there’s a baby, you just think, ‘I wish he could be here.’””

Any other major stories I might have missed?

Photo by Rae Lynn Stevenson

Securing chemicals to prevent another Paulsboro accident


One month ago, more than 200 homes in South Jersey were evacuated after a train carrying highly toxic and flammable chemicals derailed from a bridge into a creek near Paulsboro. Four rail cars that ended up in Mantua Creek contained vinyl chloride. One released 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, which formed a cloud of toxic gas that drifted into the community.

Photo by Rae Lynn Stevenson

The incident may seem isolated, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. What happened there could happen with devastating consequences across New Jersey — and across the United States.

There are 473 chemical facilities in America today that pose a danger to populations of 100,000 or more, and 89 plants that place a million or more people at risk of immediate injury or death from toxic chemical exposure.

The Paulsboro Refining Co.’s refinery uses hydrogen fluoride that puts up to
3.1 million people at risk. In South Kearny, the Kuehne chemical facility processes chlorine gas that risks the lives of nearly 12 million people, according to company reports to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Paulsboro was bad, but the true impacts may not be known for years or even generations. Vinyl chloride is a dangerous, highly flammable chemical that, according to the EPA, causes liver damage and is known to cause cancer in humans. It took more than two weeks to remove the railcars from the creek, a tributary of the Delaware River, which provides drinking water for 15 million people.

More than 70 people were hospitalized after the vinyl chloride release. Monitoring found very high levels in the community. Hundreds were eventually evacuated and others were told to shelter-in-place. Fortunately, no one was killed.

This accident was far from the first in 2012. In October, a freight train carrying butadiene derailed just outside of Louisville, Ky. The collision resulted in an explosion and fire that hurt five workers and forced evacuations. How much worse would this have been if the train were passing through densely populated Louisville?

There’s more. In June and July, two derailments in the Midwest led to explosions and evacuations. In January, three trains collided in Indiana. And in one of the worst rail accidents in recent history, nine people died and 250 more were treated for chlorine exposure after 60 tons of the toxic gas were released in a 2005 train accident in Graniteville, S.C.

In the wake of the Paulsboro accident, some are calling for stricter train safety standards, though new standards won’t solve the underlying problem. What we need is to do something about the massive amounts of hazardous chemicals we transport by rail and store in facilities that put the health of thousands of workers and communities at risk. We know safer chemicals and options exist; the industry should use them rather than ship thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals across the country.

Aware of the dangers posed by these plants since 9/11, Congress drafted bills to secure chemical facilities and limit the storage and use of deadly toxins at the plants. After the attacks in New York, it became clear that the vulnerability of chemical facilities posed grave threats to national security. In Washington, officials ended the storage of potentially deadly toxins at the largest wastewater plant in the region just 90 days after 9/11, fearing the plant was a security risk. This move eliminated risks to more than a million people, including anyone on Capitol Hill.

And then a curious thing happened: As the chemical industry pressured representatives to delay the safeguards, President George W. Bush blocked promising rules by the EPA to prevent such a disaster at our highest-risk chemical plants. And now, a decade later, these plants still pose a threat.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The EPA has the power to use its existing authority under the Clean Air Act to safeguard chemical plants and reduce the use of deadly chemicals, including vinyl chloride, at these sites. It won’t be easy, but action to begin securing dangerous chemicals would protect the health and lives of millions, including at-risk New Jerseyans.

Republicans and Democrats were united in their desire to protect families from accidents and acts of terror targeting chemical plants post-9/11. It’s time to unite again, for Paulsboro and the many other communities affected by toxic chemicals.

We have known about this danger for too long. We have seen too many near misses for the Obama administration, which has expressed support for these policies, to continue to delay. This action as one of outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s final acts could cement her legacy, in New Jersey and nationwide. This is not just an environmental issue. It’s an issue of worker and public safety, and national security. How many more accidents do we need before we acknowledge the risks the storage and transport of these chemicals pose?

The time to act is now, before the next toxic spill takes place in Trenton, New York City, Philadelphia or any of the other hundreds of cities and towns that are one accident or act of sabotage away from disaster. We must act now, to prevent another Paulsboro.

Mike Schade is markets campaign coordinator with the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.

** This op-ed originally appeared in the NJ Star Ledger on Sunday December 30, 2012:

Photo by Rae Lynn Stevenson

Paulsboro Train Accident Reveals Dangers Posed by Chemical Transportation and Production to Communities and Workers


Trains leaking toxic vinyl chloride into air and water. Vinyl chloride is used to manufacture PVC/vinyl plastic. Photo: Rae Lynn Stevenson/South Jersey Times

(Paulsboro, NJ) As over 200 homes continue to be evacuated due to the vinyl chloride train disaster, environmental and labor organizations called on the Obama Administration to use its power under the Clean Air Act to require chemical manufacturers to use safer available chemical processes and eliminate chemical disaster risks.   Groups also highlighted how the production and transportation of the carcinogen vinyl chloride to manufacture vinyl plastic, poses health hazards to communities and workers.

“This is the second major derailment of ultra-hazardous rail cars since the October 29th derailment near Louisville, KY,” said Rick Hind, Legislative Director of Greenpeace. “It was only a matter of luck that no one was killed in either of these accidents but people  were forced to seek medical treatment. Luck is not an acceptable policy when thousands of lives are at stake. Today there are safer available processes that should be required so that poison gases are no longer shipped through our communities. The graffiti on thousands of rail cars is proof that no one can protect them from mischief or a terrorist, and accidents are all too common. The Obama administration has championed this issue in Congress but also has the authority to require the use of safer processes. Once safer chemical processes are in use, rail car derailments will no longer pose a threat to entire cities.”

“Vinyl chloride is an extremely toxic chemical that causes cancer according to the EPA,” said Mike Schade, Campaign Coordinator for the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ). “Friday’s train accident sent a toxic plume of this dangerous plastics chemical into people’s homes, sending dozens of residents and workers to the hospital, and leading many more to shelter in place and evacuate.  This is not the first time vinyl chloride has sickened communities.  Earlier this year a vinyl plastics plant in Louisiana exploded, sending a plume of toxic pollution downwind.  Safer alternatives are available, and that’s why leading businesses such as Apple, Google, Johnson & Johnson and Nike have committed to phasing it out.  This unfortunate accident highlights how vinyl is the most toxic plastic for children’s health and the environment.”

“The final destination of the railcars has not been reported, but we do know thousands of railcars of toxic chemicals traverse the country each day,” said Denise Patel, Project Coordinator for NJ Work Environment Council. “We also know that many of these chemicals can be produced on site in smaller quantities to avoid transporting them. New Jersey requires all plants using large quantities of highly hazardous chemicals to review options for safer alternatives. Since adopting the requirement under NJ’s Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act in 2005, 41 of New Jersey’s 85 most dangerous facilities, including oil refineries and chemical plants, have taken steps to reduce inventories of toxic chemicals, installed new equipment and processes to reduce the risk of accidents, and take other measures to make plants safer for workers and communities.  The EPA should use its authority under the Clean Air Act to do the same. The idea has garnered support from over 100 labor and environmental organizations, and former NJ Governor Christie Whitman.  In light of this disaster, we urge the Obama Administration to act quickly.”

Resources for journalists:

August 2012 chemical disaster prevention op-ed by former NJ Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in The New York Times:

July 2012 chemical disaster prevention petition to the EPA from 50+ organizations:

May 2012 Coalition letter to president Obama from 100+ organizations calling for chemical disaster prevention policy:

March 2012 National Environmental Justice Advisory Council letter to

the EPA:

Interactive Google mapping program to finding a high risk chemical facility anywhere in the U.S.:

Background on the dangers of vinyl: