• Home/
  • News/
  • One thing we can learn from the Ohio chemical disaster

One thing we can learn from the Ohio chemical disaster

Chemical Pollution

One thing we can learn from the Ohio chemical disaster

There is a lot to say about the recent chemical tragedy in East Palestine, Ohio. But it makes one thing painfully obvious. Toxic chemicals will never be made safe, no matter how hard you try.

Published on 06 Mar 2023

Chemical companies often argue that chemicals should be managed based on exposure risks and not on how toxic they are. In other words, hazardous chemicals should only be considered harmful if people are exposed to them. And with good risk management practices — for example, clear safety instructions to employees and customers — exposure can be mitigated.

In plain English, they agree that hazardous chemicals, like a lion, are dangerous to humans. But as long as the lion stays in its cage, it does not pose any danger.

The problem is that it’s impossible to guarantee such a thing. Nothing illustrates this better than the recent chemical disaster in Ohio.

One of the biggest contamination incidents
On February 3 this year, a train pulling several tankers of highly hazardous chemicals derailed near the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, causing one of the biggest chemical disasters in US history.

“Residents are worried and confused. And rightly so”

Among the toxic substances in the spill was the known carcinogenic vinyl chloride, used in the production of plastics.

A couple of days later, officials chose to “burn off” the vinyl chloride, causing a giant black mushroom cloud to appear in the sky and a thick chemical smell to spread through town. A nearby resident found her chickens dead the day after the incident and told journalists: “If it can do this to chickens in one night, imagine what it’s gonna do to us in twenty years”. Thousands of dead fish were later found in local streams and residents have complained about headaches and nausea.

Residents are worried and confused. And rightly so. The scale of contamination from the chemical disaster and its long-term effects on human health and the environment are still unknown.

“It is impossible to guarantee that exposure to a toxic substance is avoided”

So, what’s to blame for this catastrophe? Is it the many years of cost-cutting in the freight rail industry or the Government’s dismantling of safety regulations? Perhaps both are to blame to some degree. But there is an even more fundamental cause and culprit in this tragedy — the naïve belief that exposure to toxic substances can somehow be controlled.

The human factor cannot be overlooked
It is impossible to guarantee that exposure to a toxic substance is avoided throughout its life cycle. From all the workers in the production plant, down the global value chain, from first-hand consumers to waste and recycling, there are too many unknowns to guarantee such a thing.

The human factor must be taken into account. An outdoor cable, containing toxic flame retardants, may be used indoors. And a make-up set, with hormone-disrupting chemicals, may end up in the hands of a child and be used as a toy.

Big accidents like the one in Ohio may not be very common, but when they occur, they are often catastrophic.

Governments around the world need to step in and regulate harmful chemicals to make sure they are not part of our everyday life. And the chemical companies with their factories, machinery and know-how must start developing safer alternatives.

“We need both carrots and sticks to phase out toxic substances”

For the case at hand — vinyl chloride — there are already tons of safer alternatives available. But it continues to be produced on a massive scale since it is cheap, companies are used to it and have it integrated in existing infrastructures. And most importantly — vinyl chloride is still perfectly legal.

We need both carrots and sticks to phase out the toxic substances and scale up the supply of cost-efficient safer alternatives.

Policy makers need to pick up the pace and restrict the most harmful chemicals. But they also need to incentivise chemical companies to be frontrunners.