At about 10:45 a.m. on January 25, 2022, something shook the communities of Sulphur and Lake Charles, Louisiana. The cause? An ethylene dichloride tank at Westlake Chemical South, a plant located about four miles from Lake Charles, had exploded. Thick, dark smoke billowed into the air. Emergency crews responded quickly, and local schools issued a shelter-in-place order.
The shelter-in-place order was lifted as soon as authorities determined that no harmful vapors lingered in the air, but six workers were injured in the incident. One was treated at the scene and five others were taken to local hospitals.
When accidents like this happen, residents and workers are left wondering: how harmful was the chemical that was involved in the explosion? Does it pose a lasting risk to their health? This article will shed light on what ethylene dichloride is, what it’s used for, its toxicity, and so much more.
What Is Ethylene Dichloride?
Ethylene dichloride (1,2-dichloroethane) is a colorless, oily liquid chemical compound that has a pleasantly sweet smell similar to chloroform. It is most commonly used to produce vinyl chloride, a material that’s used to make upholstery for furniture and motor vehicles, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) piping, auto parts, wall coverings, and housewares. Ethylene dichloride is also often used as a solvent and as an intermediate for organic compounds. Its boiling point is 183 degrees Fahrenheit and its melting point is -31 degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s estimated that about 20 million tons of ethylene dichloride are produced in the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan every year.
Is Ethylene Dichloride Dangerous?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has classified ethylene dichloride as toxic, flammable, and carcinogenic (having the potential to cause cancer.) It can be dangerous to humans if it is inhaled, swallowed, or comes into contact with the skin. Because it is highly flammable, it can also cause serious fires or explosions if mishandled.
What Injuries & Illnesses Are Linked to Ethylene Dichloride?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ethylene dichloride exposure can have serious effects. These effects will vary depending on the extent of exposure and whether it occurred quickly or over time. The method of introduction into the system, such as inhalation versus skin contact, can also affect resulting injuries or illnesses.
The general results of ethylene dichloride exposure are:
- Eye, throat, and nose irritation
- Burned and cracked skin
- Lung and heart problems
- Nausea and vomiting
Effects of Acute Ethylene Dichloride Exposure
Acute inhalation of ethylene dichloride vapors can affect the nervous system, causing:
- Narcosis (a state of tiredness or unconsciousness)
Ingesting large quantities of ethylene dichloride can cause:
- Pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs)
- Bronchitis (inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the lungs)
- Cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
- Hemorrhagic gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining)
- Colitis (inflammation of the lining of the colon)
- Changes in brain tissue
If ethylene dichloride vapors come into contact with the eye, this can cause:
- Eye irritation
- Clouding of the cornea
Effects of Chronic Ethylene Dichloride Exposure
The noncancerous effects of chronic ethylene dichloride exposure have not been fully researched at this time, but studies have reported changes in the liver, kidneys, immune system, and central nervous systems of animals who were exposed to lower levels of ethylene dichloride over time.
Cancer & Ethylene Dichloride
The EPA lists ethylene dichloride as a Group B2 carcinogen. This means it is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” based on sufficient evidence from animal exposure but limited evidence from human exposure. This classification is based on both inhalation and ingestion.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), “Breathing or ingesting high levels of 1,2-dichloroethane [ethylene dichloride] can cause damage to the nervous system, liver kidneys, and lungs and may cause cancer.”
In animals, inhaling, ingesting, or touching ethylene dichloride had increased occurrences of:
- Stomach cancer
- Mammary gland cancer
- Liver cancer
- Lung cancer
- Endometrium cancers
Is There an Increased Risk in Pregnant Women?
At this time, there are no conclusive studies that indicate an increased risk of birth defects from ethylene dichloride exposure, but it is always best to exercise caution while pregnant and to see your doctor if you have been exposed to anything you believe may endanger your health or the health of your unborn child.
What Workers Are at Risk of Ethylene Dichloride Exposure?
Ethylene dichloride exposure is most likely in workplaces that produce or work with this chemical compound. Workers are most likely to inhale the compound during production, disposal, transportation, or storage. Ingestion of ethylene dichloride in contaminated water is also a possibility, but it is less likely because it evaporates quickly into the air.
Residents near factories or plants that use or produce ethylene dichloride may be exposed to the compound, as may people who live near hazardous waste sites.
What Are the Symptoms of Ethylene Dichloride Exposure?
Ethylene dichloride exposure can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, loss of consciousness, and eye, nose, and throat irritation. A breath, blood, or urine sample can be taken to determine if someone has been recently exposed to ethylene dichloride. The test must be done within a day or two of exposure to ensure its accuracy.
How Does Ethylene Dichloride Affect the Environment?
Most ethylene dichloride that is released into the environment is airborne. Once it is released into the air, the sunlight will break it down, but it can remain in the air for more than five months. Ethylene dichloride that is released into water sources will break down very slowly. Most will evaporate into the air. When ethylene dichloride is released into the soil, it will evaporate or travel down into underground water sources.
Employers Must Protect Workers from Ethylene Dichloride Exposure
Employers across the country must take appropriate measures to protect workers from exposure to ethylene dichloride. This includes implementing proper training and safety standards so workers know what to do if they are exposed and how to recognize signs of exposure. They must provide safety equipment to protect workers from inhaling, swallowing, or touching the compound. They must also post warning signs where ethylene dichloride may be present, and they are responsible for ensuring tanks containing the compound, piping, and equipment that deals with ethylene dichloride are well maintained.
Failures to implement safety standards in any workplace, particularly one where ethylene dichloride is present, can have disastrous consequences. The workers at the Westlake Chemical plant near Lake Charles, Louisiana, discovered that when the ethylene dichloride tank exploded and sent five people to the hospital. Incidents like this are simply unacceptable.
At Arnold & Itkin, we are committed to helping workers across the country who have been exposed to hazardous substances like ethylene dichloride. We have represented survivors and victims’ families of some of the worst industrial disasters, like the Williams Olefins Geismar plant explosion, helping them get answers and secure life-changing recoveries. When companies are negligent, people turn to our plant explosion lawyers for the help they need.