In Hazardous Waste

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The correct handling and transportation of dangerous chemicals have always been necessary. Still, the recent train derailment in Ohio on February 3 has brought vinyl chloride to everyone’s minds. It’s a stark reminder of the effects of mishandling dangerous chemicals on human beings and the surrounding environment.

When the Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, eight train cars carrying vinyl chloride and various chemicals caught fire, dispersing several toxins, including vinyl chloride, into the area’s water, air and soil. While researchers have yet to establish the full effects of the event, safety professionals must see this incident as a learning opportunity so that we can prevent incidents like this in the future.

What Is Vinyl Chloride?

Vinyl chloride is a colorless gas with a sweet odor at high volumes. It doesn’t occur in nature and must be produced for commercial use. The primary application of vinyl chloride is in the plastics industry, in the process of making polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is not a known or suspected carcinogen. It is used for pipes, wire coating and packaging materials. Vinyl chloride can be stored as a liquid in low temperatures.

This gas is highly flammable and unstable at high temperatures. It is known to cause many severe illnesses in humans and harm the surrounding environment.

Products That Contain Vinyl Chloride

Vinyl chloride is used to create PVC, which has many applications, including sewage pipes, food packaging, floor coverings, medical devices, fencing and more. Vinyl chloride uses also include tobacco products, credit cards, upholstery, household appliances, children’s toys and automobile parts.

While there is some debate surrounding the hazards associated with PVC, inhalation is the primary exposure method for human beings. It is most dangerous when transported or present in the air outside a factory producing PVC products.

The controversy in recent years is enough to see large-scale manufacturers agreeing to phase out the use of PVC in their products.

How Is Vinyl Chloride Harmful to Humans?

Exposure to vinyl chloride is associated with liver cancer, brain and lung cancer, as well as leukemia and lymphoma. When inhaled, vinyl chloride can also act as a central nervous system depressant, causing dizziness, headaches, light-headedness and disorientation. Inhaling large amounts can be fatal. Some of the other dangers to human beings following short-term inhalation include severe burning of the skin and eyes and permanent eye damage.

Prolonged and repeated exposure to vinyl chloride can cause the following health issues:

  • Damage to a developing fetus
  • Scleroderma
  • Memory changes
  • Acro-osteolysis — degradation of the bones in the fingers
  • Raynaud’s syndrome — damage to the blood vessels in the hands and feet
  • Vinyl chloride disease

Research into the health effects of vinyl chloride is still ongoing. There is evidence to suggest that exposure to vinyl chloride may enhance preexisting liver disease and possibly more diseases as well.

Vinyl Chloride Exposure Symptoms

The first signs to look for if you suspect vinyl chloride exposure are dizziness, tingling in the arms and legs and irritation of the eyes, nose, lungs and throat. It can also cause headaches, sleepiness and nausea. The effects of short-term exposure should end once you are no longer exposed. Other symptoms of vinyl chloride exposure include the following:

  • Coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath
  • Headaches and irritability
  • Numbness and tingling in the arms and legs
  • Loss of consciousness

Inhaling large concentrations of vinyl chloride can produce a sweet taste and a euphoric feeling, followed by drowsiness and eventual loss of consciousness.

How Is Vinyl Chloride Harmful to the Environment?

As it’s not a natural gas, vinyl chloride wasn’t designed to exist in such large quantities in the environment. Most of the vinyl chloride that enters the atmosphere is broken down by natural sunlight into other chemicals. Most of it evaporates if it gets into the soil or water. However, accidental events that cause large amounts of vinyl chloride in water or the general atmosphere can be catastrophic.

In an incident like the train derailment in Palestine, Ohio, vinyl chloride from the trains was burned. When vinyl chloride burns, it releases phosgene and dioxins into the air. Phosgene is a colorless gas used as a chemical weapon in World War I, as it causes vomiting and breathing difficulties. Dioxins, created from burning chlorinated carbon, are environmental pollutants persistent enough to remain in the ground and human body for extended periods.

Once dioxins are in the environment, they become part of the food chain, where they concentrate in the fatty tissue of animals. They are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental issues and cancer. Dioxins can also permanently damage the immune system.

How to Prevent Vinyl Chloride Exposure

How to Prevent Vinyl Chloride Exposure

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides strict exposure limits for vinyl chloride, as most exposures happen in the workplace. Adopting the proper safety protocols can limit the risks of transporting hazardous chemicals. Workers, safety managers or employers can take the following measures to prevent vinyl chloride exposure:

  • Label containers: Abide by OSHA’s hazard communication standard and ensure all containers, including secondary containers, are correctly labeled.
  • Wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE): Anyone working with vinyl chloride should avoid contact with their skin and airways. OSHA requires all workers interacting with hazardous chemicals to wear appropriate PPE for that chemical. They must wear gloves, protective clothing, non-vented goggles, a face shield and a respirator.
  • Provide in-depth training and information: Employers and safety managers must provide workers with comprehensive training on how to work with and transport vinyl chloride. Training should include how to wash clothing after contact with the substance, safely use a respirator, access safety information and read labels. Workers should also be well-versed in how to react during accidental exposure and apply first aid measures.
  • Ensure proper ventilation: As vinyl chloride is often used as a gas, areas where employees interact with this chemical should be well-ventilated in line with OSHA requirements.
  • Consult an expert: OSHA recommends getting expert advice on handling and managing toxic chemicals and those that could be a reproductive hazard.

What to Do in a Vinyl Chloride Spill or Emergency

In the event of an accidental spill or another emergency involving vinyl chloride, whether in the course of transportation or a factory setting, there are specific steps to take to minimize the potential damage. Anyone interested in the removal of vinyl chloride should be correctly trained and equipped to handle such a hazard and take the following actions:

  • Evacuate: Remove all personnel and bystanders from the area — trained professionals must monitor the entrances and exits.
  • Eliminate sources of ignition: Vinyl chloride is flammable and volatile at high temperatures. Remove any sources of heat or ignition.
  • Absorb liquids: Use dry sand or similar material to absorb vinyl chloride liquid and place the sand in sealed areas for disposal as hazardous waste.
  • Ventilate the area: Vinyl chloride runs the risk of explosion, don’t flush it into confined spaces like sewers.
  • Decontaminate and treat anyone exposed: Those directly exposed to vinyl chloride should be decontaminated by trained and qualified professionals and transferred to the closest hospital for treatment.

Enroll in Hazmat School Courses Today

Enroll in Hazmat School Courses Today

As the East Palestine train derailment teaches us, the correct shipping and storage methods for vinyl chloride and many other hazardous substances are essential. Hazmat industry employees must receive comprehensive and quality training to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Hazmat School has a wide selection of training courses to help safety professionals gain critical certifications and, more importantly, to protect your business, employees and the community in which you operate. You can complete all our courses at your own pace, knowing they meet Department of Transportation (DOT) standards.

You can choose the course that best suits your needs as a safety professional, including a DOT shipping training course, a requirement if you ship or store hazardous materials. A DOT IATA IMDG Multimodal Hazmat Shipping course will prepare you or your employees to ship by land, sea and air.

You can register for a course today, or contact us for more information on how we can help you keep your community safe.

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