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In the Loop

Pondering chemical accidents and the industry we’ve come to accept

When materials such as asbestos were put into use, lead was added to paint and gasoline and we discovered the properties of PVC, we didn’t know any better. Now we do, and it is time to start acting like it.

Site of the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio

Officials conduct operation and inspect the area after the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 17. The train derailment happened Feb. 3 in which 38 cars derailed, including 11 containing hazardous materials, forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate for several days. (Photo by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

I’ve been considering how, and if, I wanted to write about the train derailment last month in East Palestine, Ohio. Should I blast the chemical industry for not eliminating these toxic chemicals yet? Or maybe I should call out brands for continuing to use polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in such large quantities across so many sectors? What about maligning the federal government for allowing things such as vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), a known human carcinogen, to flow by rail across the country?  

In the end, I’m not going to do any of that. Nearly every actor in our economy had some role to play in what happened in Ohio, whether we like to admit it or not. Responsibility stretches from the corporations that fight chemical safety regulations (either directly or through their industry groups) to the brands that say they are working on removing the worst materials in their supply chains but tend to make little progress. And the government? I don’t even know where to start. 

This horrific incident has been written about so extensively that I don’t feel like I’m in a position to cover it any differently or any better. Instead, I’ll share some thoughts on the fallacy we’ve created, specifically one where we continue to use hazardous materials because we’ve convinced ourselves that we’ve reduced the exposure to a level where the risk is acceptable.

More about hazard, exposure and risk

The vast majority of us who’ve never taken a toxicology class may not be familiar with this simple equation:

Risk = Hazard x Exposure

In many ways, this is the foundation of toxicology. Let’s break down each piece of the formula using definitions of the terms.

  • Hazard is the inherent property of a chemical substance to cause harm under the right circumstances.
  • Exposure refers to the dose. How much, and in what ways am I coming in contact with a chemical?
  • Risk is the likelihood that harm will occur.

As implied by those definitions and the makeshift equation above, risk can only occur if a chemical carries both an inherent hazard and there is sufficient exposure to cause harm. Your thoughts may already be circling around the two ways we can eliminate risk, so let’s dig into them a bit. 

Reducing exposure

Minimizing risk by reducing exposure is ostensibly the way our industrial economy has always operated. We’ve created chemicals with varying degrees of hazard, mostly from petrochemicals, and turned them into the cornerstone materials of our modern society. The VCM on the train that derailed in Ohio was almost certainly on its way to a facility to be made into some of the more than 40 million metric tons of PVC we produce each year for packaging, building products, kids’ toys or one of the myriad other uses for the material. The underlying idea here is that while VCM is toxic, we reduce risk to an acceptable level by only manufacturing it and shipping it in closed vessels to avoid inhalation. This works most of the time but not always. 

The recent derailment is just one of many examples of exposure mitigation failing. Others include:

  • Methyl isocyanate were released from a Union Carbide facility in Bhopal, India, in 1984, killing thousands almost immediately and leaving tens of thousands more with serious long-term health effects.
  • Toxic chemicals were dumped at the Love Canal site in Niagara Falls, New York, throughout the 1960s and 1970s in a landfill that eventually leached toxics into the groundwater. 
  • The Cantara Loop spill in California in 1991 spilled 19,000 gallons of the pesticide metam sodium into the Sacramento River, killing millions of fish and hundreds of thousands of trees. 
  • A coal ash holding pond overflowed into the Dan River in North Carolina in 2014, polluting 70 miles of the river. 
  • As my colleague Suz Okie wrote about last week, there are also the point-source issues created by chemical plants in places such as Cancer Alley that harm local communities over generations.

These examples, pulled from a list too long to share here, represent the ways in which our current efforts to use highly hazardous chemicals while limiting exposure have failed. We have reached a point where we accept far too much risk for the cheap and convenient products of our everyday lives. Surely there must be a better way. 

Hazard reduction

The better way, at least in the eyes of my colleagues that follow the precautionary principle, is to reduce hazard to a point where exposure to chemicals will not lead to risk. This is easier said than done, but is the foremost goal of disciplines such as green chemistry and green engineering.

As the authors of a Scientific American article put it recently, "For 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." 

In other words, we need significant investment in research and development to find and scale green chemistry solutions to make them the norm — not the exception — in our economy. 

I’m not an absolutist on this. I realize there are certain applications where we may have to accept some level of chemical toxicity for the foreseeable future because the benefits outweigh the risks. Maybe it is in the development of life-saving medications or maybe it’s in the manufacture of critical infrastructure for our transition to a low carbon future (such as solar panels, wind turbines and Li-ion batteries).

What I’m not willing to accept is the risk to humans, animals and the environment for convenience and low-cost goods. Certainly we are more industrious and innovative than that. When materials such as asbestos were put into use, when lead was added to paint, and we discovered the properties of PVC, we didn’t know any better. Now we do, and it is time to start acting like it.

It shouldn’t take a major chemical spill and ensuing environmental disaster to refocus our energy on this topic. Many have called for new railway safety measures in the wake of the East Palestine accident, but they fall short of what is needed to sufficiently decrease risk. As leaders in the transition to a circular economy where safe materials are kept at their highest and best use indefinitely, we should be pushing for better materials at every turn.

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