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Last December, I testified in the US Senate at its first-ever public hearing about plastics. I called for a 50 percent reduction in the nation’s production of plastics over the next decade. That was immediately met with criticism by the plastics and chemical lobbyists. These lobbyists are not the ones living in East Palestine, Ohio, where a train derailment spewed dangerous chemicals into the air, soil, and water. They’re not the ones living in neighborhoods next to railroad tracks. They’re not the ones facing health risks from plastic production plants in their backyards every single day.
The East Palestine disaster was a direct result of the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and plastic. The hazardous chemicals being transported by the derailed train — including vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen — are used to make PVC, the world’s third most used type of plastic, typically used in pipes to deliver drinking water, packaging, gift cards, and toys that kids chew on.
So let’s be clear about what happened this month in Ohio: Thousands of residents were ordered to evacuate — all to make PVC plastics. People reported rashes, headaches, and other symptoms associated with chemical exposure — all to make PVC pipes used to deliver drinking water, when alternatives to PVC piping exist. Thousands of fish in nearby streams were killed — all to make plastic toys our children play with and chew on. Ohioans’ drinking water may have been threatened — all to make cheap vinyl shower curtains.
When I talk to restaurant owners about the need to eliminate plastic packaging, they often say they use plastic because it’s cheap. Don’t tell residents of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania that plastics are cheap — or the people of Louisiana and Texas, living in the shadow of where PVC is manufactured.
Plastic’s risks to human health shouldn’t be understated. Long-term exposure to vinyl chloride is associated with lymphoma, leukemia, and cancers of the brain and lungs. It can increase the risk of miscarriage and birth defects in pregnant women. Experts have advised East Palestine farmers and other residents to test their wells over the next few months in order to protect the health of both people and livestock. A Cornell University scientist stated that nearby soil should be tested to make sure crops aren’t contaminated.
Plastic is not cheap. Just ask the Americans living this nightmare. No parent should have to worry about their little ones digging in the dirt or splashing around in the local creek. Residents will be dealing with this toxic train derailment for years to come.
They deserve better. We all do. Plastic threatens human health at every stage of its life cycle, from the toxic substances released into the air during fossil fuel extraction, to the dangerous transport of these chemicals, to the plastic particles and toxins we consume from our food and drinking water, to the hazardous emissions from facilities burning or burying the waste after consumer use.
East Palestine made headlines because most people don’t expect these strikingly obvious displays of chemical contamination from plastic. However, in areas like Louisiana’s Cancer Alley — an 85-mile stretch of petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River — the danger is a daily reality. It consists primarily of Black and low-income neighborhoods, which suffer from an unusually high number of cancer cases on top of the constant threat of chemical accidents.
Plastic is not cheap. And Americans will continue to pay the price as plastic production grows. In East Palestine, residents should be provided with long-term medical monitoring and Norfolk Southern Railway should be held fully accountable for all costs, including damages to natural resources.
On a national level, labor unions must be taken more seriously when they express safety concerns — and guaranteed more time off. Congress needs to stop caving to railroad industry lobbyists and require braking improvements and tighter regulation of rail cars.
Finally, our national leaders must pass federal policies reducing the production and use of unnecessary plastic. PVC is a great place to start — Taiwan, Korea, and New Zealand have already banned it in food packaging. In Massachusetts, state Representative Michael Day introduced a bill to reduce packaging and some of its toxic substances. The bill bans PVC and PFAS (also known as “forever chemicals”) in all consumer packaging.
Big Plastic has spent decades distracting the public from the industry’s responsibility in the plastic pollution crisis — which is also a climate and health crisis — and their lobbyists continue to shape legislation that prioritizes profits over people. It’s time our elected officials put their collective foot down, hold companies accountable, protect people from plastic, and pass policies curbing plastic production. Americans deserve better.
Judith Enck is a former EPA regional administrator, the president of Beyond Plastics, and a professor at Bennington College.