The EPA Evaluates the Toxic Chemical Vinyl Chloride

Vinyl chloride is on the Environmental Protection Agency’s radar. In December, the EPA started processing five toxic chemicals for risk evaluation. One of those chemicals is vinyl chloride. The agency will evaluate vinyl chloride for one year. If it designates the chemical as a high-priority substance, it will start a formal risk evaluation.

The first step is to prioritize vinyl chloride by evaluating whether health and environmental protections are needed. If the EPA determines that vinyl chloride poses an unreasonable risk to health or the environment, the agency will start the risk management process to stop the threats.

“Moving forward to comprehensively study the safety these five chemicals that have been in use for decades is key to better protecting people from toxic exposure,” said Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Michal Freedhoff, in a statement.

The Environmental and Health Problems of Vinyl Chloride

Vinyl chloride is used to manufacture and process plastic materials, mainly polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic and vinyl products. PVC is used to manufacture pipes, wire, cable coatings, and packaging materials. Billions of pounds of vinyl chloride is made annually in the U.S., with around 99 percent used to produce PVC. Smaller amounts of vinyl chloride are used in furniture and automobile upholstery, wall coverings, housewares, and automotive parts.

The EPA classified vinyl chloride as a human carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also classify it as a human carcinogen. The National Cancer Institute found that vinyl chloride is “associated with an increased risk of a rare form of liver cancer, as well as primary liver cancer, brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia.”

Long-term exposure to the chemical can also cause liver damage. Vinyl chloride can enter groundwater from factories that use or produce the chemical. It can also get into groundwater as a microbial degradation product of trichloroethylene. Drinking water may contain vinyl chloride from contact with polyvinyl pipes.

“Identifying these chemicals is a key move by EPA in a process that should eliminate any dangerous health threats they pose,” said Daniel Rosenberg, director of federal toxics policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s also a good step in addressing overproduction and overuse of toxic plastics.”

The Environmental Justice Component

There is an environmental justice aspect to manufacturing vinyl chloride. The toxic chemical is often made in factories in low-income communities and communities of color. Toxic Free Future found that vinyl chloride and PVC factories reported dumping millions of pounds of hazardous waste to incinerators, cement kilns, and landfills in the south-central U.S.

On February 3, 2023, a train carrying five cars carrying 150,000 gallons of vinyl chloride and five cars carrying PVC derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Residents and first responders reported suffering from headaches, coughs, and anxiety. After nearly a year since the derailment, health experts are still studying the long-term effects of vinyl chloride exposure in East Palestine.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman, freelance writer/journalist/copyeditor Twitter: @gmcheeseman

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