We can prevent future chemical train derailments by using less plastic

Seven out of the eight types of toxic materials that escaped from the derailed train in East Palestine, Ohio, are used to make plastic.

Beyond plastic

Large pile of single-use plastic bottles
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Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

The chemical train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, is devastating for public health and the environment — nearby for now, but potentially spreading further through our air and water. It is obvious that the cleanup effort is going to be a challenge, and residents are rightfully concerned about how the vinyl chloride (which is linked to cancer) and other chemicals that potentially went up in flames may adversely affect their lives.

No matter how thorough the cleanup effort is, adverse effects are likely to linger for years to come. 

On any given day, this could easily happen again. About 12,000 trains carry hazardous materials through U.S. towns and cities each day. Rail cars transport 4.5 million tons of toxic chemicals through U.S. communities every year.

We’ve all heard that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So how can we prevent future incidents involving trains full of hazardous or explosive materials?

The federal Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation should tighten up safety rules to ensure that production and transportation of hazardous materials is as safe as possible. But we need to recognize that, given the nature of these chemicals, these processes will never be completely safe.

Which raises the question: Why are we transporting so many hazardous materials anyway? 

The obvious answer is that we use them to make a lot of stuff. But do we need to?

Let’s look at the chemicals involved in the East Palestine incident. Vinyl chloride, a colorless gas that can cause nerve damage, disrupt the immune system, damage the circulatory system or cause liver cancer, is used to make a variety of plastic products, including plastic bottles and containers, shrink wrap, cling film, single-use trays and containers and the plastic label sleeves on disposable drink bottles. 

Vinyl chloride is often used to make polyvinyl, also called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). This plastic is used in products including plastic bottles and containers, shrink wrap, and different kinds of packaging, as well as building and construction products, tubing and more. It can cause eye, skin and respiratory irritation, as well as asthma.

Polyethylene is the most widely used form of plastic in the world. It is used in many everyday products, including single-use bags and packaging, clear food and product wrap, as well as bottles, containers and more. As a solid plastic, it is considered non-hazardous. But exposure to polyethylene in its fine dust form can cause eye, skin and respiratory irritation, and inhaling polyethylene-filled smoke is considered hazardous.

Propylene glycol is used to make polyester (plastic), as an antifreeze and deicer, to absorb water, and as a solvent. Polyester is the main component of PET plastic, which is used to make disposable products including packaging and bottles, as well as many synthetic fabrics. In large quantities, propylene glycol can increase the amount of acid in the body or irritate the skin. It can also affect the respiratory system. 

Diethylene glycol is used to retain or absorb moisture, as a lubricant and a solvent, and in the production of polyesters – which are used in things such as disposable beverage bottles and synthetic fabrics. It can damage the kidneys, liver and central nervous system, and may cause death.

Noticing a pattern here? All of these toxic chemicals, in some form or another, are used to make the ubiquitous plastics around us. In fact, seven out of the eight types of toxic materials that escaped from the derailed train in Ohio are used for that purpose.

It is nearly impossible to avoid disposable plastic packaging or other single-use plastics in the United States. Look at the shelves at your local grocery store. As a result, every 15.5 hours, Americans throw out enough plastic to fill the largest NFL stadium in the country, AT&T Stadium (the home of the Dallas Cowboys), and the pile of pollution grows larger every year.

All of that plastic comes from a growing petrochemical industry doubling down on production. Indeed, as clean energy adoption accelerates in the U.S., the fossil fuel industry is betting big on plastic. Since 2010, companies have invested more than $200 billion in 333 plastic and other chemical projects

We don’t have to use this much plastic. We can shift away from this wasteful, polluting and costly system to a circular material economy that produces zero waste, conserves natural resources and limits pollution and global warming emissions. We’re already moving in this direction: More than 30% of Americans live in a state that currently bans some type of single-use plastic. To match the scale of the problem, we need more states to follow.

If that happens, we would need far fewer chemicals such as those on the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in Ohio to produce plastics. So, far fewer chemicals would need to be transported through our communities, lowering the risk of future events like those in East Palestine.


Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG