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PVC: The poison plastic

Before PVC plastic products arrive at retailers like The Home Depot, vinyl chloride holds serious danger both for communities where it is manufactured and for the millions of people who live near the rail lines traveled by these hazardous tank cars. While not all vinyl chloride is shipped by rail in the U.S, these rail shipments pose serious risks to nearby communities across the U.S.

Vinyl chloride is the basic building block chemical for making PVC plastic. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have all identified vinyl chloride as a known human carcinogen. It is associated with liver cancer, lung cancer, brain cancer, lymphoma, leukemia, breast cancer, and numerous other health problems.7, 8

Vinyl chloride rail cars at OxyVinyls’ LaPorte, TX plant. Credit: Google maps

This train transport of vinyl chloride is just one of the many serious environmental health hazards of PVC’s lifecycle. According to EPA estimates based on company reports, PVC plastics companies produced 10 to 20 billion pounds of vinyl chloride in the U.S. in 20199, often in low-income communities and communities of color.10 Numerous other highly hazardous chemicals are used or released during the production, use, and disposal of PVC plastic, including chlorine gas, asbestos, mercury, ethylene dichloride, phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), organotins, heavy metals, chlorinated paraffins, dioxins and furans, and numerous other additives and chlorinated byproducts.11-17

This new investigation follows our 2023 report PVC Poison Plastic, which found that PVC plastics plants reported releasing more than 400,000 pounds of vinyl chloride into the air in 2021, posing risks to downwind vulnerable communities. The report included interactive maps of the vinyl chloride, PVC plastic, and disposal facilities in the U.S. and found that many of these plants are located in low-income communities and communities of color. Of the U.S. residents who live within three miles of a vinyl chloride, PVC manufacturing, or PVC waste disposal facility, the report found that 63% are people of color, compared to 41% nationwide. The report also found that residents of these areas earn 37% below the national average.

This investigation comes one month after the U.S. EPA announced it is taking the first step to prioritize vinyl chloride under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) for potential regulatory action, and at a time when numerous U.S. states are expected to reintroduce laws to ban PVC in packaging and other products.18