Vinyl chloride, an indispensable yet hazardous chemical, is one of the building blocks of modern life. The tragedy of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, has vividly underscored its dual nature. The train, laden with 50 cars, of which 10 carried hazardous materials, was severely damaged and leaking vinyl chloride gas. To eliminate this risk, crews had to ignite and burn the vinyl chloride—a decision that will indelibly impact the town and its residents.
This article explains what vinyl chloride is, its applications, the effects of exposure, and why ensuring safer handling is critical for the safety of workers and the public.
What Is Vinyl Chloride & What Is It Used For?
Scientifically speaking, vinyl chloride is a clear and mostly odorless gas that takes on a sweet scent in dangerous quantities. Through pressurization, vinyl chloride becomes a liquid, which is how it’s typically stored and transported.
From a manufacturing point of view, vinyl chloride is among the top 20 most-produced petrochemicals in global industry. This manufactured substance is predominantly used to create polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic products. Virtually every residential or commercial property you’ve ever visited has PVC pipes installed.
The versatility of vinyl chloride extends beyond pipes. It is used in the manufacture of automotive parts, furniture, packaging materials, wall coverings, wire coatings, vehicle upholstery, and plastic kitchenware. It is also employed as an intermediate in producing other chlorinated compounds and as an element in mixed-monomer plastics. Historically, vinyl chloride functioned as a solvent, propellant, refrigerant, and was even evaluated as a potential anesthetic.
Exposure to Vinyl Chloride
As vinyl chloride becomes a gas in most natural environments, exposure typically occurs by inhalation. Alarmingly, such exposure poses a greater risk than natural gas or ammonia. The East Palestine train derailment demonstrated the dangers of a controlled vinyl chloride burn, releasing phosgene and hydrogen chloride into the air. Phosgene, a notorious WWI weapon, can induce vomiting and hinder breathing. Though less toxic, hydrogen chloride can irritate the eyes and skin.
The main victims of vinyl chloride exposure are workers involved in its production, use, transportation, storage, and disposal, but as we’ve seen, residents can also become exposed through chemical spills or other accidents. Vinyl chloride exposure can occur through leaks, improper use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and sample collections at manufacturing facilities or industrial factories. The community can be exposed to vinyl chloride by breathing contaminated air or using water contaminated with vinyl chloride for showering, cooking, or laundry. Families of workers who handle vinyl chloride can face increased risk of repeated exposure if workers come home with it liquefied into their clothing.
Effects of Vinyl Chloride Exposure
As a colorless gas, vinyl chloride exudes a mild, sweet odor at high levels. Acute exposure can irritate the eyes, mucous membranes, and respiratory tract. It can also cause frostbite or skin and eye irritation when escaping compressed gas or if it contacts a person’s skin as a liquid. The central nervous system is the primary victim of exposure, resulting in symptoms like dizziness, ataxia, inebriation, fatigue, numbness and tingling of the extremities, visual disturbances, and, in severe cases, coma and death.
Chronic exposure to vinyl chloride can inflict permanent liver damage, leading to liver cancer, neurologic or behavioral symptoms, and changes to the skin and bones of the hand. It can increase the risk of a rare form of liver cancer (hepatic angiosarcoma), as well as primary liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma), brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia. Workers who have had prolonged exposure or exposure at high levels face higher risks, according to studies done on PVC pipe makers.
No Antidote for Vinyl Chloride Exposure
Sadly, there is no direct treatment for vinyl chloride exposure. Any medical intervention typically focuses on supporting respiratory and cardiovascular functions. If exposed, experts recommend immediate flushing of the eyes with clean water for at least 15 minutes. Similarly, immediate submersion of the affected body part in warm water is advised for skin contact with liquid vinyl chloride. Immediate medical attention should follow.
Vinyl Chloride Production, Handling, & Transportation
Vinyl chloride, being a gas at room temperature, is stored as a liquid in pressurized tanks and is transported via pipeline, rail, or truck. Handling of vinyl chloride requires PPE at all points of its manufacture, storage, transportation, and use. The storage equipment must be corrosion-resistant to prevent slow leaks.
Any reforms or improvements to how vinyl chloride is handled should, in theory, be fairly quick to implement. That’s because in the US, only four companies produce vinyl chloride: Westlake Chemical (35% of supply), AGC Chemicals (25% of supply), Olin Corp (20% of supply), and Kaneka Corporation (19% of supply). The large-scale production implies that any accident would potentially affect a large number of workers and have extensive impacts.
At the end of the day, workers handling vinyl chloride face the highest risk of exposure. Given its importance and profitability, its four manufacturers should spare no expense in providing workers with top-tier PPE and storage/handling equipment to prevent exposure. For workers already facing long-term harm or shorter lifetimes due to exposure, companies like Westlake and AGC Chemicals must spare no expense in providing for their medical care and other losses.
It is not just a matter of doing the right thing, but acknowledging the sacrifices these workers make so we can enjoy the benefits of this incredibly versatile chemical product.