Letter: Probably no need to worry about toxic gas release

Graphic by Lori Deaton

Every community would be fortunate to have a public citizen like Cecil Bothwell, primed to enter the fray with timely concerns. But a little more fact-finding is in order in the matter of Silver-Line Plastics’ (no relation) manufacture of polyvinyl chloride plastic pipe [“Ohio Derailment Raises Local Concern,” March 15, Xpress].

PVC is a solid made from vinyl chloride monomer, a gas, which was released in the catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Yes, VCM gas is an established human carcinogen and, when burned, can form dioxins, also highly toxic substances.

However, small manufacturers of plastics typically start from solid PVC in the form of pellets or powder that they reshape in extrusion machines into commercial products. The solid PVC may arrive in “hopper” cars, recognizable by udderlike chutes along the bottom of the tanker from which the load can be delivered using pneumatics. By contrast, VCM gas is transported in a chemical tanker car; the caplike ends are slightly convex.

When it comes to comparative toxicity, think of a molecular necklace. As loose beads, the molecules of VCM gas are a serious toxic hazard. But, after polymerization, the solid PVC, in the form of a large necklace, is relatively inert. Residual, unreacted VCM in solid PVC pellets and powders does exist, but at trace levels that are vastly lower than those encountered at East Palestine.

If anyone is actually exposed to unreacted VCM in PVC, it could be employees who have regular contact, say, in the headspace of an unventilated storage area. I hasten to add that suppliers of PVC have been aware of the problem for at least 40 years. There is a competitive advantage to keeping residues of the notorious VCM to a minimum.

The U.S. Department of Transportation placard number for VCM gas is 1086. Shipments of PVC solid pellets do not require a DOT number. I’d be extremely surprised if any 1086 is being delivered locally. Creating solid PVC from VCM gas on-site requires large chemical reactors and specialized facilities. We’d know it and have smelled it a long time ago if VCM gas were being polymerized into PVC anywhere near Asheville.

I first visited Asheville in the summer of 1985 as a representative of the National Toxics Campaign rallying for the Super Drive for Superfund. Our 1986 amendments created the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, today available online to any citizen. I find no evidence of routine VCM emissions at any industrial facilities in Buncombe County.

Yet technical specialists seldom have all the answers. So kudos in advance to any citizen watchdogs, perhaps informed by the details above, who uncover quality evidence to the contrary.

Until then, let’s remember that our blue collar friends and neighbors in the region’s manufacturing sector currently have a lot to worry about. And emergency responders always have a lot to worry about. Bulk quantities of vinyl chloride gas a few miles from downtown Asheville probably isn’t one of them.

— Ken Silver

Editor’s note: Ken Silver notes that he recently retired from a tenured position on the Environmental Health Sciences faculty of East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health. He holds several professional certifications, including certified hazardous materials manager and certified industrial hygienist. He reports no industry conflicts of interest.


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6 thoughts on “Letter: Probably no need to worry about toxic gas release

  1. indy499

    Ken, I agree with everything you said except the Cecil part. He’s a factless fear monger.

    • Ken Silver

      I’d hate for other citizen watchdogs to think that their reward for public participation would be ad hominem criticism here or elsewhere. I saw Mr. Bothwell in action on another issue recently and was impressed, after a decade of salutary remarks from friends locally. Can we agree that it’s a part of life that any one of us can have supporters and detractors, and be spot-on correct here, but may need to accept refinements to our arguments there?

      Personal stuff aside, watchdogs might consider those chemicals that are being shipped through our area. The headline to my letter pertains to vinyl chloride, not all rail shipments of chemicals. (Letter writers don’t choose their headlines).

      And any facility or wreck with large amounts of PVC has the potential become a royal mess environmentally in the event of a major fire (dioxins et al here). Owners of a fixed site manufacturing facility have the biggest interest in fire prevention, but fires still occur. And rail companies will benefit from the current push for stepped-up public oversight and worker rights.

      • Robert McGee

        You’re a breath of fresh air in this town at this time. Thanks for standing up…

  2. joelharder

    I live near a railroad and shouldn’t be surprised by cargo that goes by on these tracks. The railroads have the AskRail.Us App that provides First Responders disclosures on hazardous cargo. I think the law should change to allow residents adjacent to the railroad to have the option to get trained and monitor the information for themselves.

    The emergency responders and the citizens are going to jointly have to deal with the train disaster and whatever cargo spill occurs.

    • Ken Silver

      I agree.

      Using a little bit of information to leverage the release of the information you really want is something I learned with NTC.

      An old official bugaboo on citizen right to know about the specific haz mat contents of rail shipments has long been the threat of terrorism.
      In c. 1986 the National Toxics Campaign’s chief spokesman was booked for a slot on Good Morning America. Ahead of the interview he picked the brains of staffers like me for what he should discuss. I told him to go on national TV and pull the (then) pocket-sized, bright orange DOT Emergency Response Guidebook out of his shirt pocket, call it “the bible” of hazmat, and urge citizens to directly monitor placard numbers on rail and truck containers to ascertain the specific chemicals moving through their communities. He turned it down based on concerns he had previously heard from government officials about terrorism.

      Mind you, we NTC staffers were fearless, ultra-progressive 20-somethings, especially our chief spokesman, an accomplished organizer and analyst, who was cited in Mother Jones for his accomplishments before age 30. We had heard that mainstream groups thought we were a little “crazy”, despite our close work with grassroots blue collar folks and their organizations. So I demurred; maybe there was something to the terrorism caveat?

      But that didn’t stop us from proposing in our book “Fighting Toxics…” that citizens learn to use the DOT Guidebook and bring lawn chairs, coolers, and binoculars to a picnic in the industrial part of their town to gather the information directly from the four-digit placard numbers on passing trucks and railcars. A bit lower profile than Good Morning America, I figured. It would simply generate a qualitative list, with no detail on the frequency of shipments. Yet regular customers for industrial chemicals tend to receive regular shipments. Combined with TRI data (which is now widely available) reasonable inferences could be made about the intended customers of specific hazardous chemical shipments, or at least the right questions formulated. And a little info can be used as leverage to obtain the info you really want and need, right?

      So I re-propose the idea here, also a lower profile venue, because maybe the railroad companies are still not providing the information to citizen groups and neighbors.

      I’m so over the terrorism part. I’ve interacted a fair amount with justifiably pissed off working people in various parts of the country, many of whom are over the top “red” today. My gut tells me that poisoning their hometowns is not in their playbook. To the contrary, if they’ve heard about it, their hearts are with the people of East Palestine. And, though I claim no expertise, it seems foreign terrorists have lost their toehold here in the USA. What would be the symbolic value of “hitting” industrial parts of rural towns anyway? We’re talking on or near the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak.

      So go for it! Get the DOT phone app here: https://www.phmsa.dot.gov/training/hazmat/erg/emergency-response-guidebook-erg.

      Is your phone orange, perchance? Kidding…

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