Toxic Vinyl Chloride Spill: What Victims Still Need to Do

Why Residents Must Stay Vigilant after Spill Likened to “Love Canal”

In February 2023, an estimated 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride – a toxic chemical used mainly to manufacture polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic – spilled from derailed tanker cars. The carcinogenic and poisonous substance quickly fouled the air, soil, and water across the small Ohio community of East Palestine. Soon thereafter, residents reported severe health impacts, including dizziness, respiratory issues, and burning sensations in their eyes and skin. They also found dead and sickened pets and livestock in their yards, plus thousands of dead fish and other wildlife in areas across the region.
Despite declarations that the air and water are now safe, contamination remains a serious concern, since exposure to toxic vinyl chloride and other plastic byproducts burned in the spill have been shown to increase cancer risks with long-term exposure.
Safe Piping Matters calls for local, state, and federal officials to recommend that families immediately start taking the following measures to protect themselves:

First, they must keep testing and monitoring the water in homes, schools, and businesses. Even after “do not drink” cautions are lifted, research shows that flushing with water may not fully remove pollutants from drinking water systems, because chemicals adhere to pipes – a process called adsorption – and then re-release over time. Residents whose water flows through plastic pipes and fittings (such as PEX, CPVC, and HDPE plastics) should remain especially vigilant as toxins in these materials may remain for longer periods, especially when hot water runs through piping. A 2017 study in the Journal of Hazardous Materials shows plastic pipes sorb (take on) and desorb (give off) significantly higher levels of toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes compared with piping made of metal such as iron and copper.

Second, families must insist that authorities identify and treat all sources of contamination. According to experts like Purdue professor Andrew Whelton, “government officials have repeatedly refused to release the chemical plume modeling results,” calling their transparency into question. It’s a failure that will almost certainly pose serious and continuing health risks. For example, as the spill and its byproducts spread across East Palestine through the soil and water, toxic chemicals may permeate into plastic pipes and then into plumbing systems. This could re-introduce contamination months or years after they were previously deemed safe. When this happens, affected pipes must be re-flushed and may need to be removed and replaced, ideally with pipes made of metal or other impermeable materials. In addition, soil and water in the affected areas must be remediated.

Third, victims must demand continued action and support, including health monitoring and treatment as well as repairs and replacement when pipes are affected. Whelton’s investigations and advocacy for residents includes withering criticism for Norfolk Southern, the EPA, and local and state authorities, saying “For this disaster, more so than others I’ve been involved with, external agencies working on behalf of the public have chosen not to draw from the most knowledgeable experts nationwide.” Not surprisingly, victims who feel betrayed have engaged legal counsel to demand action, aptly evoking memories of similarly shameful incidents such as the Love Canal from New York radio personality turned blogger Brian Wilson: “In an EPA response that could have been copied and pasted from the Love Canal horror story, Regan’s remarks on the agency’s role ‘concluded with him offering the reassurance that he wanted to be sure that their response would not be putting anyone at the EPA into harm’s way, despite the absence of a full-scale relief effort doing just that to residents of East Palestine.’ Sux to be you ‘on the ground’ with the wife, kids, and mortgage. Not looking good for aid and comfort from the all-caring federal government you’re paying for, is it?”