By Zoë Christopher, Operations Manager and Program Officer
Our government knows we’re living in a toxic soup of chemicals linked to cancer. The East Palestine train derailment provides a look into the problems of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) questionable policies, and is a wakeup call to connect the dots between regulatory agencies, chemical exposures, and breast cancer, because knowledge is power.
The Bureau of Transportation states that an average of more than 1,700 train derailments occur every year in the U.S. Last December, Rail Workers United, the railroad workers’ union, attempted to strike for reasons that included concerns over management changes that cut inspection times short, increasing the likelihood of derailment disasters. President Biden shut this strike down. On February 3, 2023, another train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, dumping highly toxic chemicals and known carcinogens used by the fossil fuel industry into the environment.
Following evacuation orders, there was concern about a possible explosion. Workers began to slowly release vinyl chloride gas from the train cars, burning the chemical in ditches and creating a huge plume of traveling smoke. Not only were the 5,000 residents of East Palestine affected; the chemical plume reached southeast Pennsylvania where communities already have a long history of being forced to live with the burden of fracking and other toxic practices, and under-regulation. The derailment occurred close to the Ohio River, which supplies drinking water to over 5 million people.
Vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol, butyl acrylate, isobutylene, and ethylhexyl acrylate are the toxic chemicals the EPA announced were released into the air, ground, and water as a result of this derailment. Vinyl chloride is considered carcinogenic, which means the chemical is capable of causing cancer. It’s a toxic chemical primarily used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics. Exposure to the chemical is associated with an increased risk of liver, lung, central nervous system, and kidney damage. Burning vinyl chloride releases highly toxic phosgene and hydrogen chloride; burning vinyl chloride and polyvinyl chloride also forms highly toxic dioxins that are persistent, bioaccumulative, and carcinogenic.
Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science Director for the Science & Environmental Network states, “While high levels of any of these toxic compounds would not be expected in a home, this train derailment brought these health hazards to unsuspecting people’s backyards — contaminating the air they breathe and potentially their soil and water supply.”
Various news media reveal that residents of East Palestine and neighboring affected areas report nose bleeds, nausea, difficulty breathing, headaches, tired, and burning eyes. Over 40,000 animals died from the high concentration of toxic chemicals in the atmosphere. This catastrophe illuminates the intersections multiple struggles across industries, including transportation policies, union and worker rights, the safety of wildlife and environment, and our ever-accumulating risk for cancer caused by chemical exposures.
And while Ohio EPA staff were trying to learn more about the impact of this derailment and hold accountable Norfolk Southern Corporation, whose train derailed, another branch of the EPA was busy granting approval to Chevron to create new fuel from discarded plastics.
According to the EPA, the rationale for granting Chevron permission to create new fuels from plastics is due to the fact that the EPA is currently promoting alternatives to petroleum. They say it will be good for the environment. Yet according to agency records obtained by ProPublica and the Guardian, the production of one of the fuels could emit air pollution that is so toxic that the risk of developing cancer over a lifetime is 250,000 times greater than the level usually considered acceptable by the EPA division that approves new chemicals. But the EPA didn’t require lab tests, air monitoring or control that would reduce the release of the cancer-causing pollutants or people’s exposure to them before approving these types of petroleum-alternative fuels, made from plastics and waste.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s mission is “to protect people and the environment from significant health risks, sponsor and conduct research, and develop and enforce environmental regulations.” Are they protecting the public? Or will they continue to protect industry and shareholders at the expense of public health and safety?
In an EPA-announced initiative regarding the development of petroleum alternatives, and “to confront the climate crisis,” it cleared the way for new fuels made from plants, but also those made from plastics, even though plastics contribute to the release of planet-warming greenhouse gases! This does not make sense. The initiative also covers fuels made from “waste,” but the EPA says it can’t say how much of that waste is plastics, because that’s “confidential information” that would give competing companies an unfair advantage in the marketplace (also known as trade secrets) that’s making people sick and destroying the planet. Individual states cannot monitor for the presence of carcinogenic new fuels without knowing the names of the pollutants and their chemical structures—and that’s “confidential information.” Federal law states that companies must apply to the EPA for permission to introduce new chemicals, but companies aren’t required to present any data showing their products are safe for human beings.
Chevron says it followed the EPA’s process outlined in the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to gain approval to produce fuel from plastic waste. But TSCA is outdated and largely ineffective. This act was written in 1976, and only moderately amended in 2016, largely in favor of industry. The EPA Office of the Inspector General has stated in the past that the implementation of TSCA has been “inconsistent and presents a minimal presence,” and says the process used by the EPA to address new TSCA cases is “predisposed to protect industry information rather than to provide public access to health and safety studies.” The Government Accountability Office suggests that concern for trade secrets is preventing effective testing.
BCAction has a history dating back to 2011 of demanding TSCA reform and when we get close, the American Chemistry Council and industry funnel substantial amounts of money into making sure meaningful reform, in favor of public health and the environment, doesn’t happen.
Plastics are not renewable! They do not fully decompose, and plastics production is fueling the climate crisis, which, as we’ve shown, exacerbates the breast cancer crisis. But Chevron says, “plastics are an essential part of modern life” and the company is doing its part to “recycle and repurpose.” Would it be more accurate to say that plastics are a primary part of the death of modern life? Just because industry continues to make record-breaking profits from the production of cancer-causing chemicals doesn’t mean the people should pay for their greed with their lives. As the Guardian points out, “The idea of creating fuel from plastic offers the comforting feeling that plastics are sustainable,” and that’s a greenwashed delusion.
Adding to Chevron’s image as a corrupt, greed-drenched enemy of public health and the environment, in California they have refused to comply with a new law that requires oil companies to disclose how much money they are making from the sale of gasoline in the state. The data will give state regulators a clearer picture of what has driven the increase in gas prices, and state lawmakers the capacity to impose the first penalty on excessive oil profits. Of the big five oil companies that provide 97% of the state’s gasoline, Chevron is the only one that hasn’t complied with the law. And yet Chevron spokesperson Ross Allen says: “We do take care of our communities, our workers and the environment. Generally, this is job one for Chevron.” Tell that to the people impacted by toxic chemical spills, including those in East Palestine, Ohio, southeast Pennsylvania, and California—or maybe Chevron can pick up the bills for future medical and funeral costs.
The EPA needs to start holding big, greedy corporations like Norfolk Southern Corporation and Chevron accountable. The EPA needs to stop letting plastic waste be turned into fuel. The EPA needs to show that they care about environmental justice, which is one of their duties. The EPA needs to stop allowing harm to public health, and the ever-increasing risk of breast cancer caused by prioritizing corporate profit over our health. If the EPA’s approval and monitoring processes are bogged down in complex bureaucratic red tape, the rules of the game need to be rewritten, not “streamlined” to be faster and weaker.
As breast cancer activists, to address and end the breast cancer crisis we must illuminate the connections between oil and gas policy, chemical handling, the climate crisis, and public health, as brought to the news headlines by the East Palestine train derailment and the EPA’s under-regulation of cancer-causing chemicals. This is the first step toward raising our collective voices and demanding meaningful action and policy change that will limit the power of these big corporations and the regulatory agencies propping them up at the expense of our health.