Toxic Release from Train Derailment Highlights the Need for Safer Chemicals

A train derailment in southern New Jersey last Friday released thousands of pounds of a cancer-causing chemical into the air, sent over a dozen people to hospitals, and forced local residents to hide in their homes with their doors and windows shut. A week after the incident, 200 homes have been evacuated and area schools remain closed. The derailment highlights the risks that hazardous chemicals can pose to communities and the urgent need to shift to safer chemicals.

State environmental officials reported that one of the train's cars contained vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen. The derailed train leaked about 180,000 pounds of the chemical into the air. Vinyl chloride (a colorless, flammable gas that evaporates quickly) is used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, pipes, and vinyl products. High exposure to vinyl chloride via inhalation can cause dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, eye irritation, respiratory tract irritation, and with enough exposure, a rare liver cancer.

Toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride pose significant dangers to communities. The New Jersey derailment was just the latest example of these risks. "The final destination of the railcars has not been reported, but we do know thousands of railcars of toxic chemicals traverse the country each day, said Denise Patel, Project Coordinator for NJ Work Environment Council in a press release by environmental and labor organizations.

In October, a train derailment in central Kentucky caused a chemical fire that forced the evacuation of hundreds of people, including an entire small town, and closed the local highway for weeks. Nine of the train's 13 cars carried hazardous chemicals. Many residents reported health problems, and three workers had severe burns.

There are safer chemicals and processes that industry can substitute for dangerous substances and better protect Americans in the process. OMB Watch and many others in the environmental, health, and safety community have long advocated for a switch to safer chemicals and production processes. It can be done: the Clorox Company announced its replacement of bulk quantities of chlorine gas with safer chemicals in 2009.

Along with more than 50 environmental, public health, and labor organizations, we have called on the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to require chemical plants to shift to less toxic chemical alternatives. We have highlighted EPA's authority to drive us toward safer alternatives several times this year after various disasters. Why wait for another? It is time for EPA to use its authority to reduce the risk of future chemical exposure before more lives are put at risk.

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