Following public pressure, the Environmental Protection Agency on Dec. 14 named vinyl chloride monomer to its next group of five legacy chemicals that could receive high priority risk assessments under chemical safety laws.
A vinyl industry group predicted that the EPA review would show that VCM, a key building block for PVC, is safe, while environmental and public health organizations welcomed the decision to study VCM and said it would be one of the most important chemical reviews the agency has done.
EPA's news release included a statement from the head of Beyond Plastics, one of the groups that has been pushing the agency to look at VCM.
"Most vinyl chloride is used to make polyvinyl chloride plastic, which poses significant health and environmental problems that have been known for over 50 years," said Judith Enck, president of the group and a former EPA regional administrator for President Barack Obama. "This is one of the most important chemical review processes ever undertaken by the EPA. I applaud the EPA for launching this review."
Environmental groups said the community impact of the VCM spill and fire after a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, in February makes the EPA health review more important.
The Washington-based Vinyl Institute, however, predicted that the review would show that VCM is safe, and it said that VCM manufacturers have some of the most stringent safety and environmental regulation in the chemical industry.
"There is an extensive body of research and data about vinyl chloride that will support the prioritization and risk evaluation process," said VI CEO Ned Monroe in a statement. "This is an opportunity to correct any misunderstanding about the regulation of vinyl chloride manufacturing and the safety of PVC products.
"We believe this risk evaluation will further assure that the production of vinyl chloride and use of PVC products are safe," he said, noting that the vinyl industry is "fully prepared" to work with the EPA.
Monroe said including VCM on the list is not a finding of unreasonable risk but rather is the beginning of a multi-year process to evaluate it.
EPA said VCM is a known human carcinogen, and said the review of VCM and four other legacy chemicals — acetaldehyde, acrylonitrile (which is also used in plastics), benzenamine and 4,4'-Methylene bis(2-chloroaniline) — is part of an attempt to elevate environmental justice concerns.
"Under the Biden-Harris Administration, EPA has made significant progress implementing the 2016 amendments to strengthen our nation's chemical safety laws after years of mismanagement and delay. Today marks an important step forward," said Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. "Moving forward to comprehensively study the safety these five chemicals that have been in use for decades is key to better protecting people from toxic exposure," Freedhoff said.
EPA's statement said the Dec. 14 announcement starts a 12-month statutory process to formally designate them as high-priority substances, which would then kick off a more detailed review.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned the EPA in 2014 to classify PVC as hazardous waste, hailed the EPA decision. The EPA ultimately rejected CBD's petition.
"I'm thrilled that the EPA is finally taking a hard look at vinyl chloride and other chemicals used to make plastic," said Emily Jeffers, a senior attorney at CBD.
"There's a mountain of scientific data on ways these toxic chemicals harm people and the environment at every stage of plastic production, and we've been asking federal officials for years to analyze these materials more closely. I hope this is the first step toward a ban on vinyl chloride," Jeffers said.
The NGOs said the risk from transporting VCM should be part of the review.
"You don't have to see smokestacks from your backyard to be in danger from petrochemicals like vinyl chloride," said Heather McTeer Toney, executive director of Beyond Petrochemicals and a former EPA regional administrator. "They are on trains and trucks traveling through all of our communities and if we don't stop the expansion of the petrochemical industry, more communities will suffer. What happened in East Palestine could happen anywhere at any time."
The American Chemistry Council put out a statement saying it expects EPA to “rely on the best available science and input from the diverse stakeholder community, including industry, as it moves forward with its final prioritization.”
“We will be working with our member companies, industry partners and other downstream users to form consortia that can help contribute and inform the evaluation of these substances,” Washington-based ACC said.