Why Can’t We Transport Safer Chemicals Through Our Communities?!

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Photo credit: Gene J. Puskar / AP

By Sharon Franklin.

By now everyone has heard or read about the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio (or as the residents call it “EP”) due to a Norfolk Southern Railway train derailment and later chemical spill. Daily we are learning more about how this freight train derailment has polluted local waterways and released hazardous contaminants into the air.  As horrible as this incident is for the residents of EP, it also emphasizes the need for having safer chemicals that are being transported. This is a wake-up call for rethinking the kind of harmful chemicals that unfortunately fuels and destroys our local and national economies. This issue is highlighted in depth in a recent article by Scientific American, “Chemistry Urgently Needs to Develop Safer Materials.”

Regrettably, in this EP derailment incident, the freight train contained multiple cars containing combustible or flammable, petroleum-based chemicals including benzene and butyl acrylate, which are also precursors to plastics and harmful chemicals like 2-butoxyethanol (a common ingredient in paint strippers and cleaning products). The chemicals in this incident include carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive system and organ toxicants and skin and respiratory irritants that can affect the long-term safety of drinking water and soils. 

While the focus today is on this derailment, what is often overlooked is that EP is only one of more than 20,000 hazardous materials transport incidents that happens each year. More than 11,000 facilities across the United States make use or store hazardous chemicals in amounts that are harmful to either people or the environment, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Another unfortunate fact is that many of these facilities are in low-wealth communities of color. Similar incidents of derailments have brought attention and must now have the effect of inducing chemists, the chemical industry and the companies that rely on chemical products to create safer and more sustainable chemicals, processes and materials.

So, Can We Develop Safer Chemicals?   

The short answer could be yes, if we can bring chemists and engineers together with health scientists to better understand, evaluate and eliminate environmental and health hazards at the design phase of chemicals and chemical processes. A diverse group of chemical experts for the European Union has recently developed a definition of sustainable chemistry for safe and sustainable by design chemicals and materials. The publication concluded it is possible for the “development and application of chemicals, chemical processes, and products that benefit current and future generations without harmful impacts to humans or ecosystems.” But, despite the growing interest in sustainable chemistry, the industry and some governments have not fully embraced it.

Transitioning to Safer Chemicals  

In conclusion, transitioning to safer and less hazardous chemicals and products is easier said than done, because there is little incentive to transition, because of the significant costs of research and development. So, why can’t we come up with chemicals that do the same job, but are not hazardous? That is the dilemma. As the article states “If we want to end dangerous chemical incidents that make people and ecosystems sick, we need to address our dependence on these chemicals and the manufacturing processes needed to make them.” As further noted in the article, “[F]or every community that has been or could be affected by hazardous chemical incidents, we need long-term sustained actions and investments to prevent such disasters by replacing hazardous chemicals with alternatives that are fundamentally safer to manufacture, transport and use.

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