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Toxic Tuesdays

Asphalt VOCs

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Asphalt VOCs

Asphalt is made of a compacted “aggregate” mixed with a “binder.” The aggregate takes the wear-and-tear of traffic while providing a nonskid surface. It comes from rock quarries, natural gravel, and/or soil. The binder is a type of cement that holds the aggregate together in place and provides waterproofing. It comes from the distillation of crude oil. To mix it with the aggregate, the binder is heated and thinned with other chemicals distilled from crude oil.

Some of these chemicals used to thin asphalt cement are classified as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are chemicals that contain carbon and readily evaporate into the air at room temperature. Common examples of VOCs include kerosene, chloroform, benzene, trichloroethylene, and perchloroethylene. Many VOCs are dangerous to human health. Inhaling air contaminated with VOCs can cause nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and loss of coordination. Long-term exposure can cause more serious damage to the brain, liver, and kidneys. Some VOCs are also known to cause cancer in humans. Workers in facilities that make and mix asphalt are at the highest risk for health effects of exposure to VOCs. However, because VOCs diffuse through the air, people who live and work near these facilities could also be at risk.

VOCs aren’t only used in asphalt production; they’re also used in many industrial and commercial products. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that VOCs are emitted by thousands of products. CHEJ has previously written about specific chemicals classified as VOCs: benzeneethylbenzeneformaldehydetrichloroethylene and perchloroethylenetoluene, and xylene.

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Cyanide

Cyanide is a chemical usually found in compounds with other chemicals. Cyanide compounds can be

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East Palestine, OH: A Scientist Speaks Out 

Photo credit: Michael Swensen / Getty Images

By Stephen Lester.

East Palestine, OH: A Scientist Speaks Out 

The situation in East Palestine, OH remains very frustrating for many residents. They are trying to make sense of the contrast between what EPA tells them with the many adverse health symptoms they are experiencing firsthand. Many residents continue to suffer from nose bleeds, headaches, skin rashes, thyroid problems and more caused by the horrific derailment and subsequent intentional burning of five tanker cars full of vinyl chloride. A highly toxic chemical known to cause cancer, liver damage, central nervous system and other adverse health effects. EPA continues to tell people that everything is fine and Norfolk Southern, the train operator, is tired of paying for temporary housing which some people have used to move out.

The letter below, reprinted in its entirety, is from an independent scientist who has taken air samples from inside the homes in of some people still living in East Palestine. This will give you some idea what people there are continuing to go through. The letter was addressed to the Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance and Ohio representative Bill Johnson. EPA has refused to respond to these independent test results and continues to ignore pleas for additional testing in homes in East Palestine. 

Senator Sherrod Brown, J.D. Vance

Congressman Bill Johnson

(sent by email)

Hart Senate Office Building, 201 2nd St NE, Washington, D.C. 20002

June 17, 2023

Dear Senators and Congressman representing Ohio:

I am a professor at Purdue University evaluating health risks of conditions that impact people and businesses in and around East Palestine, Ohio. I want to share important findings with you. After my June 10-12 investigation in East Palestine, I have serious concerns for the safety of children, adults, and businesses. During this, my sixth field investigation, I discovered, again, that acute chemical exposures are occurring inside some residential and commercial buildings near the derailment site and along the contaminated Sulfur Run. I provide four recommendations below.

There are still acute health threats inside buildings that agencies have yet to eliminate. Several buildings around the derailment site and along Sulfur Run still have the characteristic odor of chemical contamination. I have smelled it firsthand and we have been doing nearby environmental testing. Last week some occupants indicated that they became ill and have been avoiding certain buildings even after airing them out repeatedly. Some occupants have paid for indoor air testing which revealed butyl acrylate exceeding the ATSDR screening level, soot was present, and other chemicals present (e.g., ethylhexyl acrylate, benzene). Other occupants do not have financial ability to pay for indoor air testing, but I can confirm the odor was present. Norfolk Southern contractors did visit some buildings in February using inadequate air testing devices,[1] and in one case, their team left the building because of the unpleasant odor they encountered. Some occupants told me that Norfolk Southern said they will not help them because there is legal action against them. Some building occupants have told me they cannot spend more than 2 to 5 minutes inside their building without experiencing side effects. In February/March, the East Palestine Municipal Building (85 N. Market Street), where town council meets, was contaminated with chemicals from Sulfur Run. Agencies found chemicals entering through unplugged drain pipes beneath the building. This was corrected, but contamination in other residential and commercial buildings remains.

Actions needed are to:

  1. Decontaminate all residential, commercial, and government buildings surrounding the derailment site and along Sulfur Run. This will help maintain anonymity.
  2. Conduct chemical testing inside these buildings for soot and over several weeks for volatile organic compounds (VOC) and semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOC).
  3. Inspect and eliminate pathways where chemicals enter buildings from the Sulfur Run culverts that go underneath and alongside buildings (i.e., building pipes, drains, cracked concrete, sumps, etc.).

Evidence shows that this disaster has repeatedly exceeded the scientific and organizational capability of the USEPA and other agencies involved. You may consider recommending:

  • The assembly and charging of an independent team of public experts to advise decision makers about scientific issues with this disaster. Areas of expertise needed are air quality, water quality, materials, civil engineering, environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, public health, environmental health, epidemiology, groundwater, risk assessment, among others.

Please do not hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at awhelton@purdue.edu.

Sincerely,

Andrew Whelton

Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering

Purdue University

West Lafayette, IN


[1] Borst and Bogardus. E&E News. June 1, 2023: EPA promised clarity, transparency after Ohio train derailment. But some air monitors didn’t work. – E&E News by POLITICO (eenews.net)

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Toxic Tuesdays

Vinyl Chloride

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Vinyl Chloride

Vinyl chloride is a chemical belonging to the family of compounds called organochlorides, which include other highly toxic chemicals including trichloroethane and the infamous pesticide DDT. Vinyl chloride is a man-made chemical that presents itself as a colorless and highly flammable gas under standard temperatures and pressures. This chemical used to have numerous industrial applications including as an aerosol propellant and refrigerant but concerns over its toxicity have relegated its use to the manufacture of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Vinyl chloride is also created as a byproduct of the combustion of tobacco.

Exposure to high levels of vinyl chloride is extremely hazardous and can cause death. Inhalation of even small quantities of vinyl chloride has been observed to cause dizziness, a feeling of inebriation, and even loss of consciousness. The effects of prolonged exposure to vinyl chloride include lung irritation, breathing complications (especially for people with asthma), central nervous system problems, and cancer. Vinyl chloride is classified as carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and is significantly associated with multiple forms of liver cancer, brain and lung cancers, lymphoma and leukemia.

Exposure to vinyl chloride occurs primarily in occupational settings – in PVC and vinyl chloride factories – or near landfills where other organochloride compounds accumulate and ultimately break down into vinyl chloride.

Recently, vinyl chloride has been in the news since the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio spilled over 1 million pounds of this chemical into the surrounding environment. Authorities handled the spill by burning the vinyl chloride to prevent an explosion (remember that vinyl chloride is extremely flammable), but by doing so they released dioxins – chemicals that are created from the combustion of vinyl chloride and other organochlorides. These dioxins (chemicals we wrote about in last month’s Toxic Tuesday) are extremely toxic and are linked to cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, infertility in adults and impairment of the immune system.

CHEJ was asked to help the community in East Palestine and our Science Director, Stephen Lester, recently participated in an expert panel where he noted the improper handling of the vinyl chloride spill. CHEJ will continue helping the community in East Palestine through our community organizing training and our technical assistance capacity.

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Cyanide

Cyanide is a chemical usually found in compounds with other chemicals. Cyanide compounds can be

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Toxic Tuesdays

2-Butanone

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

2-Butanone

2-Butanone is an industrial chemical that is also known as methyl ethyl ketone (MEK). It manifests itself as a colorless liquid under standard conditions, tends to evaporate into the air (volatize) quickly, and is quite flammable. 2-Butanone is manufactured in large amounts for use in paints, glues, and other finishes because of its properties as a strong solvent and because of how quickly it can evaporate. It is also released into the air from the combustion process of vehicles.

Exposure to 2-butanone causes severe irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, and skin at high concentrations. Nervous system effects such as headaches, nausea, and dizziness have also been reported. Chronic health effects, those that develop due to long-term exposure to small quantities, are much less well understood.

Damage to the peripheral nervous system has been documented in individuals who sniffed glue, with 2-butanone being a significant part of the volatizing chemicals from glues. Liver, kidney, and respiratory effects were also observed in detailed studies of 2-butanone exposure in animals, while birth defects and malformations were observed in one rat study.

Exposure to 2-butanone can happen from a number of sources. Landfills and other contaminated industrial sites or factories tend to be significant sources. Although 2-butanone tends to evaporate into the air in these sites, because it has strong solvent properties, it also tends to sift through the soil into groundwater. Once there, it can remain trapped for several weeks. Active landfills that receive constant streams of paints, glues and similar products; or factories that produce or utilize 2-butanone can become significant hubs for exposure. If 2-butanone finds its way into drinking water sources, it can create a major exposure problem given its ability to remain present in water for an extended period of time.

Although groundwater and, potentially, drinking water can be easily contaminated by 2-butanone near factories and landfills, there is no federal drinking water standard for it. Certain states have taken a more precautionary approach and established local drinking water limits. For instance, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota have all set a guidance level of 4 mg/L. This proactive decision to limit the quantity of this potentially dangerous chemical should be an example to other states and the federal government.

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Cyanide

Cyanide is a chemical usually found in compounds with other chemicals. Cyanide compounds can be

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Toxic Tuesdays

Polyvinyl Chloride

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Polyvinyl Chloride

Polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as “PVC” or “vinyl,” is the second largest commodity plastic in production in the world today, with an estimated 48.8 million tons produced worldwide in 2018. PVC is used in a wide range of products including pipes and tubing, school materials, product packaging, children’s toys, and several building materials.

PVC can safely be considered the worst plastic for our health and environment, as it releases dangerous chemicals that can cause cancer and other serious health effects from manufacture to disposal. The first problematic chemicals that can leach out of PVC products is phthalates. These are a group of industrial chemicals that are added to PVC to promote plasticity and flexibility. Because they are not chemically bound to PVC, these chemicals can leach out due to heat, pressure or simply time. Once they are out in the environment, they can enter our bodies and cause adverse health conditions such as hormone disruption, birth defects, infertility and asthma. Lead is another chemical that is commonly found in PVC. Lead exposure is especially dangerous for growing children, who can suffer from nervous system development problems and learning disabilities.

Aside from direct exposure to PVC, the manufacturing and disposal process of PVC can release harmful chemicals called dioxins. Dioxins are formed and released when PVC is burned (during disposal) or manufactured under high heat and pressure. They are a highly toxic group of chemicals that build up in the food chain, cause cancer and can harm the immune and reproductive systems. Their toxicity is of such concern that they have been targeted for global phase out by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

As mentioned previously, exposure to PVC through everyday consumer products can be significant. Children’s toys can be substantially bad offenders, although CHEJ’s PVC campaign of the late 2000s made a difference in removing a lot of PVC from the toy market. Other items that remain problematic are children’s backpacks, shower curtains, rain boots, raincoats, vinyl flooring and roofing, plastic food containers, and pet toys.

CHEJ helped develop a resolution from the American Public Health Association (APHA) – a policy statement that has the full backing of the organization – back in 2011. CHEJ was instrumental in convincing the APHA to endorse reducing PVC in facilities with vulnerable populations such as nursing homes and hospitals. This was a monumental statement from the premier public health organization in the country about the dangers of PVC.

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Cyanide

Cyanide is a chemical usually found in compounds with other chemicals. Cyanide compounds can be

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Toxic Tuesdays

Hydrogen Sulfide

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Hydrogen Sulfide

Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas that has a strong rotten egg odor. It is produced naturally by the decaying process of organic matter and can also be released from crude petroleum, natural gas, and volcanic eruptions. Hydrogen sulfide is a very common gas that is generated in large farms and food processing plants, sewage treatment facilities, and landfills.

Since it is such a common compound found in large industrial operations, the health effects  of acute exposure to hydrogen sulfide are rather well defined. At high concentrations, at or above the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health’s (NIOSH) Reference Exposure Level (REL) of 10 parts per million, exposure to hydrogen sulfide may cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory system.  At higher concentrations, it can cause apnea, convulsions,  dizziness, weakness, insomnia, and even death.

However, long-term chronic effects of exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide are just now gaining some attention. A study published in 2015 looked at the effects of low-level exposure to hydrogen sulfide among Iranian workers from a natural gas processing plant and found elevated numbers of altered hemoglobin in the blood of those exposed. This can lead to a condition known as methemoglobinemia, which causes developmental delays and intellectual disabilities – symptoms that are even more detrimental in children. Other health effects have been documented, but the association to long-term exposure is less well defined. These include problems with the retina, respiratory problems, and neurological effects.

These findings become significant because a large number of industrial facilities in the US produce hydrogen sulfide around residential areas. Landfills are perhaps the locations where hydrogen sulfide emissions are most common. A group in Bristol VA that is working with CHEJ is suffering from constant hydrogen sulfide (among other chemicals) odors from a landfill that leave the community with headaches and other health problems. CHEJ continues to work with the community to close the landfill.

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Cyanide

Cyanide is a chemical usually found in compounds with other chemicals. Cyanide compounds can be

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Toxic Tuesdays

Benzene

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Benzene

Benzene is a colorless chemical with a sweet odor that is flammable and presents itself in liquid form at normal temperatures and pressures. It is part of a family of chemicals commonly referred to as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), mainly because they evaporate quickly when exposed to air. Although benzene can be formed and emitted from natural processes, exposure to it comes mostly from human activities.

Benzene is among the 20 most widely used chemicals in the United States. It is used as an industrial chemical in the production of a myriad of products including plastics, resins, synthetic fibers, rubber lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. Benzene is also naturally found in crude oil and is a major part of gasoline.

The health effects of benzene include irritation of the body parts in contact with the chemical, immune problems, nervous system conditions, and even certain cancers. Acute symptoms of relatively short-term exposure to benzene include skin, eye, and respiratory tract irritation. Prolonged exposures to even low concentrations of benzene can result in central nervous system depression and arrhythmias, as well as trigger anemia and even compromise the immune system. Finally, it has been long established that benzene exposure can cause many forms of leukemia. The International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) has classified it as carcinogenic to humans (IARC group 1) since 1979.

Human exposure to benzene in the environment usually takes the form of gasoline fumes, automobile exhaust, emissions from certain factories, and off gassing from some commonly used products. Areas that routinely experience heavy traffic can suffer from dangerous levels of benzene in the air. Benzene can also off gas from certain paints and glues and become concentrated in an indoor environment. Additionally, cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke can account for significant benzene exposure. Finally, industries such as oil and gas can contribute to local benzene pollution greatly.

This is the case of the community in Greeley, Colorado where a fracking well pad was in operation just 1000 feet away from the 4th– 8th grade campus of the Bella Romero Academy. Kids and teachers were being exposed to levels of benzene (emanating from the fracking operations) almost seven times higher than the lifetime safe exposure level for benzene developed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Colorado 350, a local nonprofit working on the issue, reached out to CHEJ for help in analyzing a report by Barrett Engineering on the measured levels of benzene in the school. With our help, Colorado 350 is now asking the city to reinstate air monitors and shut down the fracking operation if benzene levels do not drop below safe levels.

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Cyanide

Cyanide is a chemical usually found in compounds with other chemicals. Cyanide compounds can be

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Toxic Tuesdays

Xylene

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Xylene

Xylene or xylenes (used interchangeably) is a colorless, sweet-smelling chemical occurring naturally in petroleum, coal and wood tar. Xylene occurs in three forms – m-xylene, o-xylene, and p-xylene – and together they are referred to as xylenes. Like toluene, which was the subject of the previous Toxic Tuesday, xylene is an aromatic hydrocarbon that is used widely as a solvent in the printing, rubber, paint and leather industries. It is also commonly found as a solvent in pesticide products.

Xylene, being easily dissolvable in fats, also has similar health effects to toluene. Various central nervous system (CNS) problems are associated with exposure to xylenes in the air at levels as low as 100 parts per million (ppm) including headaches, dizziness, ataxia, drowsiness, excitement and tremors. At slightly more elevated levels (~200ppm), xylene can irritate the lungs, cause shortness of breath, and can cause pulmonary edema, a condition that results in excess buildup of fluid in the lungs. At larger concentrations, xylene may lead to liver and kidney damage and even cause cardiac abnormalities.

Given that xylene is a volatile organic compound (VOC), the main route of exposure is through inhalation. Automobile exhaust is one of the main sources of exposure. Hazardous waste disposal sites are another major route of exposure, given that xylene has been found in significant levels in over half of all Superfund sites. Finally, contaminated drinking water can be another significant route of exposure even if the water is not ingested.

This was the case in the village of Amesville, OH. CHEJ worked with some of the town residents to analyze the testing results of their drinking water supply after the inside of the town’s water storage tank was painted with an epoxy resin coat. Low but noticeable levels of xylene and other VOCs were found in their water supply. Despite being below the threshold of EPA’s federal drinking water standards, the constant exposure to xylene through ingestion, inhalation (e.g., showers), and dermal contact was a cause for concern. The cumulative and synergistic effects of multiple chemical exposures, such as the xylenes and the other VOCs in the case of Amesville, are very poorly understood and oftentimes result in higher incidences of disease even at very low levels of exposure.

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Cyanide

Cyanide is a chemical usually found in compounds with other chemicals. Cyanide compounds can be

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Toxic Tuesdays

Toluene

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Toluene

Toluene is one of the most heavily produced chemicals in the US and the world. This chemical is utilized as an industrial solvent in the production of many commonly used materials such as paints, paint thinners, rubber, fingernail polish, lacquers, adhesives, and used extensively in the pharmaceutical industry.

Toluene is a clear, colorless liquid that is found in vapor form at room temperature. A common sign of significant toluene concentration in the air is a sharp and sweet odor. At this concentration in ambient air, toluene can be a fire hazard given the fact that it can become flammable at temperatures above 40°F.

The main route of exposure to toluene is through inhalation. Once inhaled, toluene is easily absorbed by your lungs and dispersed through the body, even crossing the blood-brain barrier due to how easily it dissolves in fats (highly lipophilic). The result is a myriad of central nervous system (CNS) problems including headaches, dizziness, ataxia, drowsiness, euphoria, hallucinations, tremors, seizures, and even coma; as well as respiratory, cardiovascular, and reproductive/developmental effects.

Acute exposure to high levels of toluene (≥500 parts per million) can result in multiple CNS problems within 30-60 minutes of exposure. The respiratory system can develop irritated mucous membranes and liquid accumulation in the lungs, which can lead to respiratory arrest. Finally, even short exposures to elevated levels of toluene can result in irregular heart rhythm, making cardiac arrest much more likely after intense to moderate physical activity.

Prolonged exposure to toluene levels as low as 200ppm can cause chronic CNS problems such as headaches, fatigue, nausea and difficulty sleeping. Chronic irritation of the upper respiratory tract and sore throat have been reported in people exposed to small amounts of toluene for an extended period of time. Pulmonary lesions have been documented in long-term animal studies, so this can be a potential health complication for humans. Finally, although toluene has not been confirmed as a reproductive hazard, it is able to cross the placenta and is accumulated in breast milk, meaning that it can easily reach a developing fetus or newborn.

In developing countries, toluene has become a cause for major concern due to a practice among children and young adults called glue sniffing. Glue sniffing is a form of substance abuse common in many developing countries due to its relatively inexpensive nature. The high and euphoric feelings that it produces are partly due to the ability of toluene to easily enter the central nervous system and create hallucinations and euphoria. A number of studies around the world, including in places such as SingaporeSouth Africa; and India, have documented this practice and have offered insights into how to combat this practice.

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Cyanide

Cyanide is a chemical usually found in compounds with other chemicals. Cyanide compounds can be

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Toxic Tuesdays

1,3-butadiene

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

1,3-butadiene

1,3-butadiene is a gas made from petroleum and is used to manufacture materials like synthetic rubber and plastics. Because it is a gas, 1,3-butadiene can easily leak out of production, storage, or disposal containers and enter the air. People who work in or live near facilities using 1,3-butadiene are most at risk of inhaling it, but even people in heavily polluted cities breathe air with 1,3-butadiene in it. Exposure to 1,3-butadiene can cause cardiovascular, neurological, lung, and blood defects. It is also suspected to cause birth defects and decreased birth weight. The Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health and Human Services, and International Agency for Research on Cancer have all determined that 1,3-butadiene causes cancer. Studies of people who worked in facilities using 1,3-butadiene found that they had increased incidence of blood and immune system cancers compared to the general population.

In November 2019, multiple fires and explosions occurred at a facility manufacturing 1,3-butadiene in Port Neches, Texas. There was a mandatory two-day evacuation of residents within 4 miles of the site, but soon after they were allowed to return, residents received another evacuation order because conditions had not improved. The facility, owned by Texas Petroleum Chemicals Group (TPC Group) had a long history of violating state and federal air emissions regulations. It released more air pollution than allowed by its permits on 6 occasions in 2019 and over 70 times in the last decade. TPC Group was fined for these violations, but these fines were clearly not a deterrent to the corporation breaking the rules and endangering the health of surrounding residents. In fact, in a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency after releasing huge amounts of 1,3-butadiene in the air in 2017, TPC Group was required to monitor 1,3-butadiene levels. That’s how a 2020 report found that in the months leading up to the explosions, the facility started releasing massive amounts of 1,3-butadiene into the air. Because chemicals in the air can travel large distances, we don’t know how many people may have been exposed to his cancer-causing agent because of TPC Group’s disregard for regulations. The current system of monitoring emissions and imposing nominal fines on facilities that exceed them is not working to keep people safe. Tougher regulations, harsher penalties, and revocation of permits must be considered as we fight to protect communities from corporations using harmful chemicals.

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Cyanide

Cyanide is a chemical usually found in compounds with other chemicals. Cyanide compounds can be

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