The thread that ties the recent chemical spills together

March 23 , 9:00 am 10:00 am EDT

Join Plastic Pollution Coalition Youth Ambassador Madhvi Chittoor and experts including Dr. Philippe Grandjean for a conversation about PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), and what it means that these hazardous chemicals have recently been targeted for regulation in drinking water by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Madhvi will also discuss her work advocating for a bill that would ban PFAS in consumer products.

Updated March 22, 2023

In less than 30 days, three trains carrying toxic plastics and chemicals derailed in the U.S.—two in Ohio (East Palestine and Springfield) and one in Van Buren Township, MichiganNews of a fourth Norfolk Southern derailment in Calhoun County, Alabama, made headlines following these events on March 8, 2023, just as the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee convened a hearing on the catastrophic event in East Palestine.

Just days before the Calhoun County derailment, residents of Springfield—some living just 1,000 feet from the tracks—were placed under a shelter-in-place order, which has since been lifted, to prevent exposure to hazardous materials and chemicals. And while officials report that no such exposure risks exist, they have said that at least one train car spilled plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic pellets—and these PVC pellets (nurdles) and the items they are used to create are in fact hazardous to human and environmental health.

In Van Buren Township, six cars of a 30-car train derailed in February just weeks after the disaster in East Palestine. While little information about this accident has been released, it’s known that at least one train car was carrying liquid chlorine, a “lung-damaging agent” (which was used as a chemical weapon during World War I) that could have caused serious environmental and potentially lethal human health effects if it had ignited or leaked.

The highly visible derailment in East Palestine that happened on February 3 has been deemed one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. The event’s effects are serious and ongoing, and shed an unfortunate but necessary light on safety issues and a general lack of transparency existing around toxic and flammable plastics and chemicals carried by rail.

Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio: One of the Worst Environmental Disasters in U.S. History

Since February 3, the ignition and derailment of approximately 50 train cars carried by Norfolk Southern, holding polyethylene and polyvinyl plastics, and various chemicals used in plastics production (as well as other industrial materials and items, and food products) has released a yet unquantified amount of toxic chemicals and their byproducts into air, soils, and waterways in East Palestine, Ohio. 

Immediately following the derailment, workers were ordered to intentionally open and ignite five rail-car tankers containing vinyl chloride to avoid a possibly catastrophic explosion that could have leveled the small rural town, releasing toxic compounds and shrapnel. Vinyl chloride is a highly unstable and toxic colorless gas used to create PVC. PVC is a common type of plastic found in packaging, wires, cables, pipes, flooring, and many other products. When burned, the vinyl chloride tankers released a large dark plume of gases including hydrogen chloride and phosgene (which, like chlorine gas, was also used as a deadly chemical weapon during the first World War) high into the atmosphere. These chemicals were released far and wide into air, waters, and soils, along with a mixture of toxins released from the other train cars that had breached and caught fire. 

While people living within two miles of the East Palestine train disaster were evacuated for a short time in the derailment’s immediate aftermath, chemicals released are still being detected in the surrounding environment. People have reported finding dead fish in nearby waterways, dead and sickened pets, and many have said they are reporting chemical odors, headaches, and other health-related issues since the disaster occurred. While the full toxic impacts of this disaster are just coming to light, it’s important to know that people can be exposed to chemicals through inhalation in the air, absorption through the skin, and by consuming contaminated food and water. Transparent monitoring of environmental and human health of the numerous chemicals and their byproducts released will be essential to understand the long-term risks, which could be serious, according to experts and prevent further harm.

Frontline Communities in Ohio & Beyond Face Escalating Chemical Dangers

The East Palestine train disaster’s impacts continue to threaten frontline communities in Ohio and beyond. The waste created by the disaster is scheduled to be stored or disposed of in dangerous ways in close proximity to communities already overburdened by the presence and activities of an extensive array of hazardous petrochemical, chemical, and other industrial infrastructure and activities—resulting in serious injustice. Thus far, officials have made plans to ship the toxic wastes from the derailment firefighting operations and “cleanup” to: 

a deep hazardous-chemical injection well in the Houston Ship Channel in Deer Park, Texas

a hazardous waste landfill in Van Buren Township, Michigan

• hazardous-waste disposal sites in other parts of Ohio including a deep injection well in Vickery, and incinerators in East Liverpool and Grafton

a landfill in Putnam County, Indiana

Deep-injection chemical storage wells in the U.S., like the ones in Deer Park, Texas, and Vickery, Ohio, are among the most used and least expensive forms of disposal for hazardous chemicals and other liquid wastes (such liquids from oil and gas extraction and mining). in the U.S. More than 740,000 industrial injection wells were counted under the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Underground Injection Control program by 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. Despite being so widespread across the country, these wells are notorious for being poorly regulated and unsafe, with a long history of scientific evidence linking their existence and use to earthquakes, groundwater contamination, and other serious hazards.

Fenceline communities, especially those in Texas, which leads the nation in uninsured and [is ranked] last in the nation for prenatal and maternal care, are forced to absorb the deadly costs of these toxic disasters. Waste transporter, Texas Molecular, has been the subject of 10 compliance investigations by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in the past five years. Texas Molecular has admitted that there is potential for this injected toxic water to the surface, stating: ‘Could it come up someday? Yes…’

Fenceline Watch

The East Palestine train disaster is also affecting people’s physical and emotional health in eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and far beyond. Adding insult to injury, industries—including Norfolk Southern, the rail-shipping company responsible for the three recent derailments—have downplayed and ignored the very real risks to people and the environment. These factors conspire to cause serious and life-threatening hazards to communities, and major harm to the environment that all life—including humans—need to survive.

How You Can Help: Immediate Aid and Systemic Solutions

Experts agree this disaster should be a wake-up call to the world about the dangers of continued plastics and petrochemical production. It has also prompted numerous increased safety measures, including from the Federal Railroad Administration and, a proposed railway safety bill. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation into Norfolk Southern’s “safety practices and culture” came a day before the March derailment in Calhoun County and Senate hearing, and sadly, also as news of a Norfolk Southern train conductor’s death due to a collision with a dump truck in Cleveland, Ohio, was announced.

Local groups are calling for help to assist impacted communities in the aftermath of this disaster. Here’s how you can help:

• Give directly to River Valley Organizing, Three Rivers Waterkeeper, Fair Shake Legal Services, and Kindred Spirits Rescue Ranch

Follow and give to Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, which works to monitor and end the petrochemical buildout—including Shell’s recently built plastic and petrochemical facility—and harm to communities in the Ohio River Valley and far beyond

Donate to support the distribution of free home air filters to people affected by the train derailment (people who are impacted can request an air filter here)

Tell the EPA to test for dioxins and related toxic emissions caused by the burning of vinyl chloride and PVC plastic following the derailment in impacted communities, which has been strongly suggested by Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator and president of Beyond Plastics

Tell the governments of Ohio and Pennsylvania that the must take transparent and proactive actions to inform and support residents affected by the East Palestine train disaster

Tell the EPA and Norfolk Southern to “stop burning toxic chemicals from East Palestine train derailment in our community” to prevent the impacts of this crisis from expanding

Sign the Hip Hop Caucus’ petition to stop the expansion of the petrochemical industry which drives continued pollution and injustice

• Clean Air Council is working to limit chemical exposure within the homes of impacted residents by providing whole-home HEPA rated activated carbon air purifiers. Support Clean Air Council’s Direct Relief Fund

Familiarize yourself with what the community needs in the wake of the disaster

In addition to helping frontline communities in the wake of disasters, we must also call for systems-level change so that harm can be stopped and avoided in the first place. We need to end wasteful plastic and petrochemical production and expansion and push back as industries build up a vast and highly hazardous network of plastic and chemical railways, highways, pipelines, injection systems, and other toxic artificial arteries which are changing the very nature of the planet and our bodies. 

You can advocate for a healthy, just, regenerative world free of plastic pollution and divested from fossil fuels. Get the facts, learn about solutions, and take action.


There’s a famous speech in 1957 where a marketing guy showed up at a plastics industry conference and said, ‘the future of plastic is in the trash can’…if you can convince people to throw it away.

Jackie Nuñez

From June 13–16, 2022; activists from across the #BreakFreeFromPlastic movement converged on Washington D.C. to lobby members of Congress to sign on to/co-sponsor the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. The proposed legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (OR) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (CA), builds on the successes of U.S. state laws and represents the most comprehensive set of policy solutions to the plastic pollution crisis ever introduced in Congress. 

Jackie Nuñez (@NoPlasticStraws) is Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Advocacy & Engagement Manager and the Founder of The Last Plastic Straw. For 11 years, Jackie has met with policymakers and industry leaders across the world advocating for a plastic-free future. From June 13–16, Jackie took part in the “Break Free From Plastic Week of Action” with allies from across the country. She sat down to tell us what was happening on the ground, next steps, policy updates, and more.

Interviewing Jackie is Erica Cirino, Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Communications Manager. Erica has spent the last decade working as a science writer, author, and artist exploring the intersection of the human and nonhuman worlds. She is best known for her widely published photojournalistic works that cut through plastic industry misinformation and injustice to deliver the often shocking and difficult truths about this most ubiquitous and insidious material. In her recent award-winning book, Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis (Island Press, 2021), she documents plastic across ecosystems and elements; shares stories from the primarily Black, Brown, Indigenous and rural communities that are disproportionately harmed by industrial pollution globally; and uncovers strategies that work to prevent plastic from causing further devastation to our planet and its inhabitants.



Escalating Chemical Production Threatens Aquatic Food Chain


GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN – Increasing levels of chemical and plastic pollution are major contributors to declines in the world’s fish populations and other aquatic organisms, according to a new report released today. The report is the first to bring together in one place the latest scientific research demonstrating how chemical pollution is adversely impacting the aquatic food chain that supports all life on earth.

“Many people think fish declines are just the result of overfishing. In fact, the entire aquatic food web has been seriously compromised, with fewer and fewer fish at the top, losses of invertebrates in the sediments and water column, less healthy marine algae, coral, and other habitats, as well as a proliferation of bacteria and toxic algal blooms. Chemical pollution, along with climate change, itself a pollution consequence, are the chief reasons for these losses,” said Dr. Matt Landos, report author and Director of Future Fisheries Veterinary Services.

Aquatic Pollutants in Oceans and Fisheries documents the science and numerous ways in which chemicals compromise reproduction, development, and immune systems among aquatic and marine organisms. The report is a joint project of the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and the National Toxics Network (NTN).

Authors of the Aquatic Pollutants report warn that the impacts scientists have identified are only likely to grow in the coming years and will be exacerbated by a changing climate.

“The production and use of chemicals have grown exponentially over the past couple of decades. Many chemicals persist in the environment, making environments more toxic over time. If we do not address this problem, we will face permanent damage to the marine and aquatic environments that have nourished humans and every other life form since the beginning of time,” said Dr. Mariann Lloyd-Smith, IPEN Senior Advisor and report co-author.

Key areas of concern are:

Industrial releases. Industrial facilities continue to release millions of kilograms of toxic materials, including PCBs, dioxins, industrial flame retardants, and the perfluorinated ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS into rivers, streams, lakes, and ocean waters each year. Historic industrial pollutants are re-released via dredging, while coal combustion and small-scale gold mining have substantially increased toxic mercury concentrations in the Pacific Ocean.

Pesticides. Many pesticides known to cause harm are still in widespread use and are present at harmful levels in aquatic environments. Some of these substances not only bio-accumulate in aquatic organisms, but they also destroy the habitat and food supplies aquatic organisms depend on for life, including insects. Pesticides enter aquatic and marine environments through direct sources such as run-off from agriculture, golf courses, sports fields, parks, and residential properties, as well as through indirect sources such as sewage treatment plants and spray drift.

Pharmaceuticals and personal care products. Wastewater treatment facilities do not remove all pharmaceutical residues, and these products are now found throughout marine and coastal waters, as well as rivers and streams. A 2019 global study found at least one antibiotic in two-thirds of the sites studied and unsafe levels of antibiotics in 15% of the sites.

Plastics. Many plastic chemicals are toxic, and microplastics also attract, concentrate, and magnify other persistent toxic chemicals from the surrounding aquatic environment onto their surfaces. Microplastics have been found in commercial fish species throughout the world. Fish and other organisms often mistake the tiny plastic pieces for food, thereby contributing to their malnutrition and exposing fish and the food chain – including fish eaters – to toxic chemicals. This problem is only likely to grow as the petrochemical industry offsets falling fossil fuel revenues with planned rapid growth in plastics production.

“We are at the precipice of disaster, but we do have an opportunity for recovery. The out-of-control expansion of the polluters – the oil, gas, plastics, and chemical sectors – needs to be reined in. Governments around the world must urgently acknowledge the environmental, economic, and public health degradation caused by chemical pollution and act on the scientific evidence to develop policy and lead their communities to totally re-think how chemicals are used,” said Jo Immig, NTN National Coordinator and report co-author.

The report notes that progress will require fundamental changes in the way we produce, use and manage chemicals and their associated wastes. Addressing ocean pollution and its impacts on fisheries will need substantial shifts in industries, economies, and governance, including the cessation of destructive industries like deep-sea mining and stopping the devastating practice of using our waterways as waste dumps. Re­generative approaches to agriculture and aquaculture are urgently required to help lower carbon emissions, stop further pollution, and begin the restoration process. Transitioning away from fossil fuel extraction and use remains an urgent priority, as well as holding chemical producers accountable and responsible under the polluter pays principle.

IPEN (International Pollutants Elimination Network) is a global environmental network of over 600 public interest NGOs in 124 countries, working to eliminate and reduce the most hazardous substances to forge a toxics-free future for all. IPEN is registered in Sweden as a public interest non-profit organization.

NTN (National Toxics Network) is a not-for-profit civil society network, based in Australia, striving for pollution reduction, protection of environmental health, and environmental justice for all. NTN is committed to a toxics-free future.

A new book published today from leading environmental and reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan, Ph.D. shows how chemicals in our modern environment are negatively impacting human sexuality and fertility. The book is called Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race.

The book details a major study completed in 2017 by Swan and her team of researchers. The research showed that over the past four decades, sperm counts among men in Western countries have dropped by more than 50 percent. In addition, infant boys are developing more genital abnormalities; more girls are experiencing early puberty; and adult women appear to be suffering declining egg quality and more miscarriages.

Swan says the major culprit is a class of chemicals called endocrine disruptors, which mimic the body’s hormones. These endocrine disruptors are everywhere: plastics, shampoos, cosmetics, cushions, pesticides, canned foods and A.T.M. receipts.

Count Down reveals what Swan and other researchers have learned about how both lifestyle and chemical exposures are affecting our fertility, sexual development, and general health as a species, and how each of us can reduce our exposure. 

“In some ways, the sperm-count decline is akin to where global warming was 40 years ago,” Swan told The New York Times. “The climate crisis has been accepted — at least by most people — as a real threat. My hope is that the same will happen with the reproductive turmoil that’s upon us.”

Learn more in the upcoming Plastic Pollution Coalition webinar featuring Shanna Swan Ph.D. and Pete Myers, Ph.D. founder and Chief Scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, called “Will Humanity Survive Plastic Pollution? Toxic Impact of Plastics’ Chemicals on Fertility.” Register now. 

Read an excerpt from the book here. 

Watch the Plastic Pollution Coalition webinar on Human Health & Ocean Pollution. 

Join our global Coalition.