March 4, 2024


The toxic, flammable gas that notoriously spilled into the town of East Palestine, Ohio, last year still rides on rail lines through eight major US cities. In fact, as much as 36 million pounds of the chemical, vinyl chloride, are carried on trains through the country at any given time, according to a new study by environmental advocacy group Toxic-Free Future.

The study estimates that 3 million Americans live within one mile of the vinyl chloride rail shipment routes. People of color are overrepresented among them. For example, in Philadelphia, 60,432 residents live within a mile of the route, 95% being people of color (POC). In San Antonio, Texas, 15,176 people live close to the route, 85% of them POC. Quartz used Toxic-Free Future’s data to create a clickable map of the major US cities where residents are at risk on the route between Texas and New Jersey.

What happened in East Palestine?

On Feb. 3, 2023, 38 rail cars operated by Norfolk Southern, which carried vinyl chloride, derailed in East Palestine, spilling 115,000 gallons (about 700,000 pounds) of the chemical into the surrounding area and local water streams, killing 3,500 fish. The chemical also sparked a fire that raged for days. Eventually, the authorities and Norfolk Southern decided to perform a controlled burn, which in turn sent a massive plume of smoke over the town.

Other chemicals, such as butyl acrylate, benzene, and ethyl hexyl acrylate, were also carried by the derailed train, but vinyl chloride was the most concentrated.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. Another vinyl chloride spill occurred in 2012, when a train derailed in Paulsboro, New Jersey.

What is vinyl chloride, and where’s it being shipped?

Vinyl chloride is a cancer-causing, highly flammable, odorless gas used to make PVC plastic. OxyVinyls, an affiliate of Dallas-based chemicals manufacturer OxyChem, is the largest producer of vinyl chloride and sells its products to companies like The Home Depot. OxyChem is a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum Corp. OxyChem didn’t immediately respond to Quartz’s request for comment.

Research by Toxic-Free Future released Monday (Jan. 22) revealed that the spill in East Palestine represented only a pin drop of the chemical’s annual production volume. About 1.5 billion pounds of vinyl chloride are shipped from OxyVinyl every year, the study said.

The advocacy group used data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics and the North American Rail Network lines, as well as mapping software. It estimated the route (pdf) that carries OxyVinyls’ vinyl chloride from its plants in La Porte and Ingleside, Texas, to PVC factories in Pedricktown, New Jersey.

Image for article titled Millions live near US railways shipping the toxic chemical that contaminated East Palestine, Ohio

Graphic: Toxic-Free Future

The US Environmental Protection Agency launched a formal investigation into risks of vinyl chloride in December 2023. Residents of East Palestine and nearby towns are still reeling from the contamination.

“The people of East Palestine were forced to learn the hard way that tank cars of vinyl chloride rumbling through your town can mean disaster for your health and your community,” said Mike Schade of Toxic-Free Future in a statement. “It is outrageous that the amount of vinyl chloride involved in that tragedy reflects only a small percentage of the millions of pounds that is transported at any given moment.”



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