Chemical Pollutants from Norfolk Southern Train Wreck

by Duane Nichols on April 17, 2023

Dioxins are dangerous even in very low concentrations

Dioxin: The deadly legacy of a toxic compound

Article contributed by Randi Pokladnik (PhD), Tappan Lake, Ohio, April 15, 2023

On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying 51 cars had an accident where 38 cars derailed. Eleven of those that derailed were tanker cars carrying hazardous materials such as benzene residue, butyl acrylate and vinyl chloride. Five of the eleven cars carried vinyl chloride which is used to make PVC. Some estimates say 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride were in those five rail cars. The accident happened in the small community of East Palestine, Ohio; population around 4,000.

Vinyl Chloride is a well-established animal and human carcinogen and is associated with liver cancer as well as brain and lung malignancies. It is polymerized into polyvinyl chloride, a plastic that is used to make pipes and packaging. Globally, 16 billion pounds are produced annually.

Since the derailment, the citizens of East Palestine and the rest of the world have been getting an education on how easily one industrial accident can change your life forever. One fact is obvious, no one, including local, state and federal officials and agencies, or the employees of Norfolk Southern, was really aware or prepared for the long-term consequences of accidents involving hazardous materials.

“The National Transportation Safety Board issued its preliminary report on the derailment which, even in its abbreviated form, made clear that the “accident” which has devastated the town was completely preventable and that through its actions Norfolk Southern ignored warnings for nearly an hour that one of the axles was overheating and would fail.”

Alan Shaw, CEO of Norfolk Southern said, “the ‘vent and burn’ decision emerged from a unified command group led by a local fire chief.” He added that local, state and federal officials including both Ohio and Pennsylvania Governors agreed on the decision that it was better to burn the vinyl chloride than risk an explosion. On Feb. 6, vinyl chloride was intentionally released and burned. This resulted in a massive cloud of black smoke, resembling a mushroom cloud from a nuclear detonation, to rise above the surrounding area. It could be seen for miles as it blanketed the Ohio River valley.

This decision left the residents of the area with a much larger toxic mess because the combustion of this chlorinated organic compound (PVC) creates a group of some 400 compounds called “dioxins.”

The first time I heard the term “dioxin” was in college during an environmental engineering class. Our instructor explained that no one intentionally makes dioxin, it is an unintended by-product of incomplete combustion. It also has the reputation of being one of the most toxic compounds known.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies dioxin as a human carcinogen. Dioxin was a contaminant in Agent Orange, the herbicide used as a defoliant during the Vietnam War. It was also found in contaminated oil that was sprayed over the roads to suppress dust in the now uninhabited town of Times Beach, Missouri. In 1976, an explosion at a chemical facility in Seveso, Italy resulted in the release of a cloud of dioxin. At the time, humans had never been exposed to this high a concentration of dioxin.

Most of human exposure to the compound is through foods, mainly meat and dairy products, as dioxins are very fat soluble. The half-life of dioxins once they enter the body is 7 to 10 years. Because they are present throughout the environment in small quantities, they accumulate in the food chain like DDT.

Dioxins are classified as persistent organic pollutants or POPs because they persist in the environment, resisting breakdown. “Dioxin buried or leached under the surface or deep in the sediment of rivers and other bodies of water can have a half-life of more than 100 years.”

In 2001, The International Forum on Chemical Safety along with the United Nations Environmental Program developed a treaty, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). This treaty is aimed at reducing POPs.

Dioxins were in the first 12 listed POPs addressed by the Stockholm Convention in the category of “by-products” from incomplete combustion, especially the combustion of chlorine-containing carbon compounds. This type of combustion happens when hospitals burn wastes, when municipalities incinerate their wastes and when hazardous wastes are burned in kilns like those at the Thermal Heritage Incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio.

When I first learned about this incinerator in 1993 (it was then the WTI Incinerator), I was shocked as to the amount and types of toxic compounds it was being allowed to accept. The facility’s permit allowed it to emit over four tons of lead a year. At the time the facility was being permitted, citizens exposures to dioxin via the food chain were ignored. It was said that the incinerator would produce the most deadliest form of dioxin, 2,3,7,8 tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (2,3,7,8 TCDD).

The Ohio River Sanitary Commission or ORSANCO, monitors dioxin levels in the Ohio River. Their data shows that incinerators, especially WTI, are a significant source of dioxin. In 2010, the Ohio Department of Health said that East Liverpool has a “strikingly high incidence rate of cancers (especially bladder, colon and rectum, esophagus, lung and bronchus, multiple myeloma, and prostate cancer) when compared to Ohio and the U.S.” Sadly, the facility was allowed to go online even though it failed to pass its test burn. “Its efficiency rating for removing mercury from emissions was only 7 percent, as opposed to the required 99.99 percent.”

The United States lawmakers and agencies continue to cater to the petrochemical industry. Although the USA has signed the Stockholm Treaty, it has never officially ratified it or placed appropriate regulations in place that would require industries in the USA to adhere to it. So, companies in this country still produce POPs.

PVC has a significant impact on human health and the environment from cradle to grave. Dioxin is not only released when PVC is burned but also when it is produced. PVC is 60 percent chlorine by weight. In years past, chlorine, a very toxic gas, was made via a process that used mercury to split salt into sodium and chlorine. Newer processes used today are just as dangerous and require membranes coated with the forever PFAS compounds.

In Lake Charles, Louisiana, a jury found one of the United States’ leading PVC manufacturers liable for “wanton and reckless disregard of public safety”, as it was responsible for one of the largest chemical spills in the nation’s history. The spill contaminated the groundwater underneath the surrounding community.

Consumers are exposed to PVC via food contact containers and water pipes in their homes. Leaching of organic toxic compounds (carbon tetrachloride, toluene, chloroform, styrene, o-xylene, bromoform, dibromomethane, cis-1,3-dichloropropane, and trans-1,3-dichloropropane) from PVC water pipes has been reported. Sadly, some can coatings have replaced the bisphenol-A (BPA) with another toxic coating: PVC.

Even at the end of its life, PVC continues to pollute because it releases vapors like dioxin when in landfills. If PVC is incinerated, dioxin is produced. Because PVC often has additives like the heavy metal cadmium, the waste ash from incineration is also toxic. Using plastics like PVC for a fuel source in cement kilns and incinerators is never a good way to dispose of the substance because of the emissions released.

The recent fire at a recycling facility near the Indiana-Ohio border is an example of what happens when plastics are burned. The emissions are causing concerns for the residents and experts and recent tests show they contain benzene, chlorine, hydrogen cyanide, volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide.

Our dependence on so many petrochemicals places us in a precarious position. We need to embrace safer alternatives. This is especially true in health applications where patients can be exposed to high levels of toxins from plastics items like IV tubing and IV bags. Safer alternatives include ethylene vinyl acetate for IV bags, silicone or polyurethane for tubing, and PVC free nitrile gloves, which are stronger than PVC gloves. In construction, PEX or cross-linked polyethylene pipes are comparable to copper but cheaper. They can bend a bit more than PVC and will last up to 50 years. PVC coated fabric which is used for tents, tarps and protective clothing for fire-fighters can be replaced with Rivercyclon’s fabric called Rivertex which is UV resistant as well as waterproof and PVC free.

The bottom line is we, as consumers, need to demand safer products and alternatives to toxic materials. Every day we are being exposed to toxins from petrochemicals in our lives. The communities living around the toxic facilities as well as those who work in these facilities are suffering and dying from exposures that can be eliminated. Just say no to toxic petrochemicals and products made from them.

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