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The Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, 2023, is not the first vinyl chloride toxic catastrophe of its kind. In my book The Green Amendment: The People’s Fight for a Clean, Safe, and Healthy Environment, I recount a similar story that played out in 2012 in Paulsboro, New Jersey. A dangerous chemical cloud settled over the town while youth, elders, families, and community members carried on with life, unprotected by the government officials and disregarded by industry leaders.
The Green Amendment: The People’s Fight for a Clean, Safe, and Healthy Environment, author Maya K. van Rossum
Paulsboro, New Jersey: The Making of an Industrial “Accident”
Industrial contaminants are not simply present in our environment because companies and municipalities deliberately and legally release them. They’re also there because industrial actors of various kinds have adopted a dangerously cavalier attitude toward disposing of and handling these chemicals. The “accidents” that result threaten our safety and the ability of future generations to enjoy a safe and healthy environment.
On the morning of November 30, 2012, Trisha Sheehan was preparing to receive guests at her Woodbury, New Jersey, home when she received a frantic call from her mother. “You need to turn on the news. There’s been a bad chemical spill,” her mom said. A train had derailed in nearby Paulsboro, an industrial town with a marine port and a large oil refinery located southwest of Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the derailment occurred while the freight train was crossing a bridge, sending several of its cars plummeting into the Mantua Creek below, releasing approximately twenty thousand pounds of vinyl chloride into the atmosphere.
Vinyl chloride is the primary ingredient in polyvinyl chloride (i.e., PVC), which is used to create plastics, wire coatings, vinyl floors, and automobile parts. A colorless, highly flammable toxin, vinyl chloride, causes neurological problems, respiratory illness, and cancer in human beings. Trisha’s family lived downwind from the spill, her home abutting the tidal Mantua Creek where the train cars lay, half submerged. While most parents would shudder at the thought of their children’s exposure to such a chemical, news of the spill inspired terror in Trisha because her children already have chemical sensitivities.
When Trisha first discovered that her children were sensitive to allergens, she wasn’t particularly alarmed or anxious. You don’t have to be a scientist or public health expert to know that skin, food, and respiratory allergies are on the rise. Most schools and restaurants are aware of the increased prevalence of environmental irritants and now offer an assortment of gluten- and nut-free menu options, nondairy foods, and chemical-free soaps. But in 2009, Trisha began realizing that her case might be unusual. Her sister had just recarpeted a new home. As Trisha left her sister’s house after an impromptu housewarming celebration, she was stunned to find her toddler unconscious in his car seat. As she learned from her pediatrician, there were chemicals in rugs and carpeting that were toxic to her baby. For most children and healthy adults, everyday exposures to chemicals in consumer products and environmental toxins have little noticeable effect. But for chemically sensitive children and immunocompromised adults, such exposure is immediately debilitating and, if left untreated, even deadly. When Trisha welcomed her second son in 2011, history seemed to repeat itself, as he exhibited similar signs of sensitivity.
With two chemically sensitive children to care for, Trisha began learning all she could about environmental toxins, allergies, and irritants. When cleaning agents caused her children to break out in rashes, she made her own. She installed air purifiers in her home and spent hours at the grocery store, studiously reading the labels of all food items to ensure they were toxin- and allergen-free. Parenting her children sensitized her to the larger environment and the effect that certain airborne exposures had on her children.
In 2010, Trisha joined the West Jersey/Philadelphia chapter of the Holistic Moms Network (HMN), a national nonprofit organization that helps parents avoid chemicals and take a holistic and varied approach to health. As Trisha’s parenting experience had taught her, human health is so much broader than regular doctor visits, dental hygiene, and our vitamin and mineral intake. Our health has larger environmental determinants, like the air we breathe and the chemicals to which we are exposed in our homes, workplaces, and communities. Trisha used HMN to empower her community and other parents; the network gave them access to nontoxic cleaning supplies and food recipes, as well as to the camaraderie of other parents facing similar child-rearing challenges.
On the morning of November 30, Trisha was preparing for an HMN gathering at her home, and she felt empowered. She had taken her knowledge of environmental toxins and transformed her home into a protective cocoon, free of toxins and irritants that might harm her children. But after news of the accident that morning, Trisha felt stunned and helpless. She sprang into action, canceling her plans and her children’s playdates, taking every safety precaution, and following every protocol to the letter. Community members had not been encouraged to evacuate but were instead instructed to shelter in place. Trisha followed the advice of the government agencies and professionals charged with protecting her community. She locked her doors, fastened her windows, and kept her children close. But she intuitively knew that there was nothing she could do to protect them from an accident of this magnitude.
Even for healthy individuals with no allergies or sensitivities, short-term vinyl chloride exposure is dangerous, causing eye and throat irritation, difficulty breathing, dizziness, loss of consciousness, and even death. Occupational studies on long-term exposure suggest that the substance accumulates in workers’ livers, heightening their chances of developing lung cancer, a rare type of liver cancer (hepatic angiosarcoma), brain cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma. Given that most vinyl chloride exposure results from workplace conditions, most research is focused on adults who work in PVC facilities or other heavy industries. There was little study indicating what Trisha’s children and the larger Paulsboro community should have expected following such an extreme vinyl chloride exposure. According to the guidelines of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the highest level an industrial worker should be exposed to is five parts per million, for no more than fifteen minutes at a time. Following the accident, a visible cloud of vinyl chloride encased the community, posing long-term health concerns to everyone there. Exposure rates were in the thousands of parts per million!
The derailment wasn’t merely a tragic accident—it was the result of shortsightedness and negligence. As the freight train bearing toxic chemicals approached the movable bridge that November morning, the light was red. A red signal indicated that the rail lines weren’t properly aligned and locked into place. As the National Transportation Safety Board report indicates, “The conductor inspected the bridge and erroneously concluded it was properly locked to prevent movement.” But the conductor lacked the expertise or qualifications to make such an assessment. On his command, the train barreled through the red light on misaligned train tracks and predictably swiveled, sending several freight cars plummeting into the water below.
The public health and safety response following the derailment was just as negligent as the original accident. Emergency response protocols dictated, for example, that following an accident of this magnitude, all people residing within a half-mile radius of the crash must be evacuated. And yet people residing in most parts of the contaminated zone weren’t asked to leave. Perhaps given a false sense of security driven by this seeming lack of urgency coming from government officials, elderly residents tended to their gardens, and children played outside and walked home from school, with no breathing apparatus or other precautions. First responders, told they didn’t need to take special precautions in dealing with the airborne toxin, worked without hazmat suits or breathing apparatus. On a street running parallel to Mantua Creek, police and health officials offered protective gear—but on one side only. Walking down that side, you had to put on a mask; if you crossed to the other side, no mask was proffered. They acted as if a detoxifying curtain ran down the middle of the road, providing a barrier of protection. Of course, that wasn’t at all true.
Even downwind in a neighboring town, shuttered in her home, Trisha and her family began exhibiting the telltale symptoms of vinyl chloride exposure. “We were vomiting, our eyes were watering, and it felt like there was a band around our head, the pain was so severe,” she recalls. After the spill, people around Paulsboro coughed and wheezed for weeks. Local Paulsboro residents visited their local health providers for relief and were consistently told they had seasonal colds or allergies.
“You have bronchitis. It’s that time of year. It’s seasonal,” was a typical response. Trisha repeatedly called a nurse’s hotline, asking for relief from her nausea, vomiting, and migraines.
“You can go see your family doctor, or go to the hospital and they will treat you,” the hotline nurse told her. After a week of ongoing symptoms, Trisha left her home to seek care at her family doctor. But she also fundamentally didn’t understand what was going on.
Community air quality notices in the area showed that toxicity levels were well under safe thresholds. Environmental attorney Mark Cuker, who represented over a thousand people affected by the accident, confirmed that exposure levels advertised on the Paulsboro Response website were false. The website indicated that the highest detected levels were “hundreds of times lower” than what the EPA deemed to be harmful. In actuality, the levels were dangerously high.
To make matters worse, air quality was inconsistent. Approximately five thousand pounds of vinyl chloride remained submerged in one of the freight train cars in the Mantua Creek. In the two weeks following the accident, first responders and emergency professionals tried to dislodge the car from the creek. Each time this occurred, there would be an “evacuation” of vinyl chloride. Trisha recalls that each time this chemical evacuation happened (without warning to the community), her sore throat and respiratory symptoms flared. The repeated eruptions caused dizziness and confusion as those two weeks wore on. One evening when Trisha’s husband returned from work, he looked at her blankly and asked, “Have you been drinking?” Trisha was intoxicated and delirious, but not from recreational alcohol consumption. That evening she passed out, only to wake up later, vomiting and with a migraine.
The Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail), which owned the train and the malfunctioning bridge, took action to shield itself from legal liability. Immediately after the spill, railroad representatives visited doctors, telling them that the train derailment couldn’t possibly have caused the physical complaints they were seeing in the community. Medical officials heeded this “expert advice” and told clients like Trisha that they had a seasonal cold or bronchitis. For this reason, many were misdiagnosed. Conrail also hosted meetings with pizza and soda, offering families $500 vouchers in exchange for signing a waiver promising they wouldn’t sue the company. If you were in the small evacuation zone, the company offered $2,500 a head. Many in this hardworking, largely low-income community took the money out of need, perceiving it as a windfall. Local families collected these checks for themselves and on behalf of their children. But if they ever develop angiosarcoma of the liver or any of the long-term respiratory conditions associated with their exposure, they are prohibited from suing.
As time passed, more side effects of vinyl chloride exposure manifested. In the spring of 2013, about six months following the accident, Trisha’s youngest son began suffering dangerous nosebleeds. As she later discovered, these were the same symptoms that the children who had walked through the vinyl chloride plume were exhibiting. In 2016, a kindergarten teacher asked Trisha, “Do you know your son has short-term memory loss?” A public health policy expert later informed her that memory loss was one of vinyl chloride’s many side effects.
The chemical sensitivities of Trisha’s children did not make them uniquely susceptible to the hazards of a vinyl chloride spill. It just meant that Trisha was more aware when things went awry and that her family suffered the effects more acutely and quickly than others. Many people exposed that day suffer now and will continue to suffer in the future. Reactive airway dysfunction syndrome (RADS)—an unusual disease causing long-term, severe respiratory problems—and other chronic respiratory illnesses are among the health conditions experienced by first responders and residents alike. For many, it’s a waiting game, to see if even greater hardship and disease manifest.
“Cancer is big on my mind, and whether or not we will end up with the rare form of liver cancer that vinyl chloride causes,” Trisha says. “I shouldn’t have to worry about my three-year-old getting cancer from a chemical that was released nearby that he breathed in, in his own home.”
The Paulsboro train derailment should never have happened. Conrail officials responsible for managing the bridge should never have acted with such nonchalance in the accident’s wake, thereby elevating the cancer risks and long-term respiratory illnesses for community residents and first responders. The negligent company took advantage of the rampant misinformation, falsely reassuring the public and shielding itself from liability. Government officials failed to take adequate precautions. Health officials, firefighters, police officers, and school administrators weren’t given the information they needed about the astronomical levels of vinyl chloride that had erupted into the atmosphere, and were therefore unable to protect the long-term health of the larger community.
You might read the Paulsboro story and think, “How awful! But at least my community is safe.”
Is it? What kinds of industrial operations exist in and around where you live? And what kinds of chemicals do these operations handle? According to one estimate, about nine million Americans, including a disproportionate share of people of color, live in neighborhoods within three kilometers of large commercial hazardous waste facilities, and thousands of additional towns are near other major sources of Pollution, including refineries, chemical plants, freeways, and ports. You have to be located in an industrial corridor or in close proximity to hazardous facilities to be at risk. Given how lax the industry routinely is in handling its chemicals and operations and how lackadaisical the government has been in regulating the industry, such incidents might well happen in your community one day.
It’s time to learn our lessons and take meaningful action. After you read Paulsboro’s story below, here are two things you can do today:
1. Take action to stop the transport of more hazardous substances cutting through our communities on a subpar rail system not designed to safely carry them. Among the most dangerous and newest hazardous substances added to the rail lines for transportation is Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Just twenty-two tank cars of LNG hold the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb (which is why they are dubbed “bomb trains”). Sign your name now to urge the government to protect communities from the potentially devastating consequences of transporting LNG by rail.
2. Passage of Green Amendments: Communities across our nation are seeking the passage of constitutional environmental rights amendments, called Green Amendments, that will secure the inalienable human right of all people to clean water and air, a stable climate, and a healthy environment. With a Green Amendment in your state, government officials will always be constitutionally bound to put the environmental health and safety of our communities first, above the corporate greed of industry. Write your legislator today to secure your human right to a clean, safe, and healthy environment.
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