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.

Learn about more toxics