Vinyl Chloride – A Case Study

The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.

  • Proverbs 22:3

Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
    and the years approach when you will say,
    “I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
    and the moon and the stars grow dark,
    and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
    and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
    and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
    and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
    but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
    and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
    and the grasshopper drags itself along
    and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
    and mourners go about the streets.

  • Ecclesiastes 12:1-5

“Arise and attack a nation at ease,
    which lives in confidence,”
declares the Lord,
“a nation that has neither gates nor bars;
    its people live far from danger.
Their camels will become plunder,
    and their large herds will be spoils of war.
I will scatter to the winds those who are in distant places
    and will bring disaster on them from every side,”
declares the Lord.
“Hazor will become a haunt of jackals,
    a desolate place forever.
No one will live there;
    no people will dwell in it.”

  • Jeremiah 49:31-33

Extremely flammable gas.
May form explosive mixtures with air.
Contains gas under pressure; may explode if heated.
May cause frostbite
May displace oxygen and cause rapid suffocation.
May cause cancer.
May cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure. (liver)

  • Hazard Statements for Vinyl Chloride from the AirGas Safety Data Sheet

There was a massive train derailment on 3 February about an hour’s drive from our home.  The rail company assessed the hazard and although the reports are highly conflicting, it seems a controlled burn was made to mitigate the hazard.  The primary hazardous material was vinyl chloride monomer.

Vinyl Chloride, HHC=CHCl (pardon the simplified chemical expression), is used in monomer form to create PVC, poly vinyl chloride, a very stable chemical compound. You probably have it in your home, the white water or drainage pipes. When in college, I visited a PVC chemical plant. They had an accident there, but in the vessel where the monomer was polymerized, chained together to form the plastic. A relief valve and opened and tiny pellets, about the size of B-Bs were thrown everywhere. It looked like a winter scene, but the “snow” was plastic.  But before that reaction, vinyl chloride is a colorless gas that is unstable – basically wanting to form the plastic in the right conditions. It is also called chloroethylene and other names.  From the hazard statements quoted above, it is highly flammable and explosive.  It is a suspected class 1 carcinogen, so prolonged exposure might lead to cancer.  Prolonged exposure might also lead to liver disease. The suffocation hazard is when it collects in an area to replace the air there. And the frostbite is due to the cold nature of gases released from high pressure.

But, elsewhere in the Safety Data Sheet, or SDS, it says that if the vinyl chloride burns, it forms carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water, and “halogenated compounds.”  The hydrogen (H) in the chemical expression will form water, for the most part.  The carbon (C) in the chemical expression will form carbon dioxide for the most part, but since they cannot control the combustion perfectly, some carbon monoxide (CO) will form.  There will be so little CO at a safe distance that it should be undetectable, similar to automobile exhaust, but on a larger scale.  The halogenated compounds are the unknown.  Does the chlorine attach to hydrogen and form a little acid rain?  Even in undetectable amounts?  Maybe, but maybe not in a hazardous quantity.  “Halogenated compounds” in this case are anything containing chlorine (Cl), the only thing left in the equation, and reacted with oxygen and/or carbon and hydrogen, the other ingredients in the flame.  Chlorinated simple carbon compounds might have a variety of hazards, but once they have dispersed from the fire and mixed with the air of the wind, there is probably no detectable amount to harm anyone outside the burn site.  And chlorine (at least some of those halogenated compounds) is often used in water purification to kill things like algae and molds in the water system’s pipes. While some of these chlorine compounds may be considered hazardous, if there was enough of it, most would not be. But characterizing the plume from the fire as being vinyl chloride is false. The fire removed that particular carcinogen. Reports of impending deaths in the media is false and only feeding the fear – totally irresponsible.

There were a few “probably” and “for the most part” statements in that last paragraph.  The wind was not blowing in our direction, for the most part, that day, and I am not worried at all.  Then again, I lived in the golden triangle of Texas for three years, and those types of chemicals were commonly shipped out of that area.  I worked with many that were far worse than vinyl chloride. You learned to respect the hazard, but fear was something you did not have. You were used to the situation, and I trusted the safeguards that were in place.

An informed public can be a safer public, but why did I not know about the train derailment or the fire until my son in Tennessee started asking us ten days later if we had been evacuated and should we simply abandon our home and move in with them.

A misinformed public panics. I know. The media’s best trick panics the public. They grab information that they do not understand. They rush to be the first to report without understanding what they are saying or checking the facts. And the more frightening, the better for them. It sells advertisements.

God tells us not to fear, but those that are aware of dangers and are cautious usually live longer.  As the Proverbs quote says, those who are not aware pay the penalty.

I will let others write about why people were not informed, misinformed, etc. I cannot report on what really happened since the reports contradict each other. Having a call to totally shut down all plastic operations over misinformation is beyond irresponsible into the conspiracy theory category, but I have read that report also.  Why the media did not cover it at first, but now cover it with conflicting information, especially spreading fear by talking about the fire releasing carcinogens that have polluted large areas.  I will let someone else worry about that. The fire, for the most part, eliminated the carcinogens, and spread what little there was that remained to an undetectable level.  So many commercials talk of various diseases being “undetectable” as a good thing, but in this case, people fear the unknown.

The Ecclesiastes quote talks about dangers in the streets.  Those dangers will always be there and when we are young, we think we are immune to them.  And the Jeremiah quote warns the people of Hazor that they will be destroyed when they least expect it. We should not fear that or worry about it. But we should live an upright life, in case we are in the next target zone for a disaster.

I thought of this post, maybe as a preamble to a course someone wants me to write regarding Hazard Communications, 29 CFR 1910.1200.  CFR – Code of Federal Regulations, and Hazard Communications is a course required of anyone exposed as part of their job to anything hazardous and just about everything related to chemicals is hazardous.  Sure, we worry about those things that will cause cancer down the road, but something can be hazardous due to causing eye irritation when you get it in your eyes, like the liquid soap in the company restroom.  You ask, “Why would anyone put hand soap in their eyes?”  But they may not have rinsed their hands properly and then they rubbed their eyes.  Things like that happen. But since so few wash their hands …

So, while I was thinking about what had recently happened, I started studying the Safety Data Sheet for vinyl chloride, and it helps understand the hazards, but then the accidental release portion of a few of these SDS from various companies was less than helpful.  Do you let the material that is a carcinogen leak and contaminate an entire town, maybe immediately killing many people from suffocation and the rest get cancer?  Or do you let it accidentally burn which might lead to an explosion, killing people in the process?  Or do you burn it off in a slightly safer manner after evacuating the town?

You will be crucified by the media, regardless of what you do.  My question is how did the train derail? What could have prevented that? And the rail company may have done everything in this rotten situation using the best method available.

But if you are concerned, search for vinyl chloride safety data sheet.  Each company that makes the stuff produces the SDS and has it available on the public domain.  But remember that once it burns, it becomes a lot of other compounds, and those chemicals may have their own SDS.

And what God wants you to know is that we should not live in fear, but trust in the Lord.  People on the other hand … they make mistakes.  And that includes us.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.


Add yours →

  1. Thanks, Mark, for sharing your knowledge with us. We never hear the whole story, when it comes to the news, so your thoughts really shed light on this tragedy.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: