The Ohio Derailment Lays Bare the Hellish Plastic Crisis

That’s what makes the Ohio disaster so alarming. Five vinyl chloride train cars caught fire — some intentionally to reduce building pressure — likely releasing toxic compounds called dioxins. Because hot air rises during a fire, the train’s flames have thrown a black cloud high into the air, potentially spreading toxins well beyond the site of the derailment. “The thing about dioxins is that they are potent at very low concentrations and are persistent and bioaccumulative,” says Schettler. This means they remain in the body instead of being broken down. “They don’t want dioxins being deposited in the soil around East Palestine that don’t disappear and bioaccumulate in people exposed to them.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has classified the air in East Palestine as safe. Officials have also said the water is safe to drink. However, according to Gerald Markowitz, historian of occupational and environmental health at the City University of New York, there are still many unknowns about these individual chemicals and how they mix and burn. “There is real concern that there is no safe level of exposure to a carcinogen,” says Markowitz.

Since it’s so toxic, what did vinyl chloride do in a sniff? PVC is one of the most common types of plastic, used primarily in plumbing but also in packaging and consumer products such as shower curtains. In the US alone, there are about 5,000 companies that make the different types of plastic, says Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former EPA regional administrator. And they all need ingredients. “It’s not only trains, but also trucks that transport the stuff,” says Enck.

And it’s not just vinyl chloride. Manufacturers have to add drops of other chemicals to give plastic its plastic properties — things that make the polymer more heat-resistant or more flexible, for example. Many of these are known endocrine disruptors, or EDCs, that mess up our hormones. This is why bisphenol A, also known as BPA, was singled out after scientists linked it to cancer, behavioral disorders and diabetes.

But it’s a whack-a-mole game. If a chemical is found to be dangerous, manufacturers substitute others that can be just as toxic, if not more toxic. “There hasn’t been any research to know if they’re safe or if they’re less dangerous but still of concern,” says Markowitz. It will likely be years before we know the possible side effects of replacement chemicals, he adds.

And BPA was fair one of the 2,400 other chemicals in plastics that scientists think are of concern. A 2021 study found that exposure to plastic chemicals called phthalates could be responsible for 100,000 premature deaths in the US each year — and that was a conservative estimate.

The core problem is that what’s in plastic doesn’t stay in plastic. If a bag or bottle breaks apart, the chemicals inside are released as leaches. Heat and freezing also shatter any plastic into microplastics that has tainted every corner of the environment as well as our own bodies. They have been found in human lung tissue, intestines, blood and even the first droppings of newborn babies. Nevertheless, we know little about the health consequences of microplastics, although initial studies show that microplastics are highly toxic to human cells in laboratory experiments. The fire in East Palestine is a particularly alarming example of a crisis that is getting worse by the day. The Ohio Derailment Lays Bare the Hellish Plastic Crisis

Zack Zwiezen

Zack Zwiezen is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Zack Zwiezen joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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