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Chemical Regulation

EPA to scrutinize vinyl chloride, other compounds

Environmentalists applaud action as industry groups say they welcome the review

by Leigh Krietsch Boerner
December 15, 2023

A clear plastic shower curtain dangles from a metal shower curtain rod.
Credit: Shutterstock
Industry uses vinyl chloride to make polyvinyl chloride, present in a plethora of plastic products, including some shower curtain liners.

The US Environmental Protection Agency says it will look at five toxic compounds to see if they should be bumped to high-priority status under the Toxic Substances Control Act( TSCA). Environmental activists applaud the inclusion of vinyl chloride on the list, pointing out that the compound has been classified as a human carcinogen since 1974 and is linked to liver cancer and other health problems.

EPA scientists will evaluate the five chemicals in a 12-month process. If the researchers find any compounds that qualify as high priority, the agency will launch formal reviews to see if they pose an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. “Moving forward to comprehensively study the safety [of] these five chemicals that have been in use for decades is key to better protecting people from toxic exposure,” Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator for the EPA’s office of chemical safety and pollution prevention, says in a statement.

In addition to vinyl chloride, the EPA is examining acetaldehyde, acrylonitrile, benzenamine, and 4,4’-methylene bis(2-chloroaniline), known as MBOCA.

Most vinyl chloride is polymerized to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC), used in pipe, packaging, and building materials such as flooring and wall covering. Vinyl chloride was involved in the 2023 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that led to toxic black smoke and evacuations. Once the EPA’s notice is published in the Federal Register, a 90-day public comment period will be open to industry and the public.

Industry groups and environmental advocates both say they support the EPA effort. The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, says it “stands ready to work with the EPA and other decision-makers to help inform the evaluations about the important uses and innovations these substances enable.” Ned Monroe, CEO of the Vinyl Institute, says in a statement that member companies are fully prepared to work with the EPA. “This is an opportunity to correct any misunderstanding about the regulation of vinyl chloride manufacturing and the safety of PVC products,” he says.

Judith Enck, president of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics, calls the move “welcomed and long overdue.” Companies that make vinyl chloride have known the risks for over 50 years, she says in a statement. “We expect them to vigorously and irresponsibly oppose EPA action.” There is solid scientific evidence that vinyl chloride is a dangerous chemical, Enck says.

Liz Hitchcock, director of Toxic-Free Future, agrees. “Vinyl chloride threatens our health and contaminates the environment from manufacture through disposal, with workers and people who live near chemical facilities and along vinyl chloride distribution routes experiencing the greatest exposures and danger, as was shown so vividly by this year’s disaster in East Palestine, Ohio,” Hitchcock says in a statement.

TSCA was established in 1976 to assess and manage the potential risks of new and established chemicals, but regulation under TSCA has been slow. The EPA’s announcement comes with a promise to repeat the process with five chemicals every year, “which will create a sustainable and effective pace for risk evaluations,” the press release says.


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