Sunday, May 22, 2005

Plastics: Living and Dying For Plastics

On April 23, 2004, Formosa Plastics' PVC plant in Illiopolis, Illinois, blew up, killing five workers, causing the evacuation of four towns and spewing a large amount of cancer-causing vinyl chloride into the atmosphere. But vinyl chloride, a component of plastic and vinyl products such as garden hoses, shower curtains, bath toys, sewer pipe, carpeting and siding, as well as the ingredients that go into it present dangers up and down the production line, dangers we don't completely comprehend:
BACK IN NEW YORK, I sweep my kitchen floor. Bending down to separate the dropped crayons from the day's crumbs, I wonder if Bradford Bradshaw—or any of his five dead co-workers—might have had a hand in stringing together the molecules that make up this floor. It's not a remote possibility. Prior to April 23, 2004, the Formosa plant in Illiopolis made fully half of all the flooring-grade vinyl in the United States.

Now when I look at my floral-patterned floor I think of emergency sirens that fail to go off. I imagine the hushed urgency of evacuees taking to the roads. I see tanker cars rattling through towns where unsuspecting citizens sleep. My visit to Illiopolis was a vivid illustration of how the manufacture of PVC is an ongoing source of terror for the workers and the people living in the communities where it is made. And yet, phasing out chlorine-based chemical manufacturing, in which PVC plays a starring role, will require a federal government uncorrupt enough to place the chemical security of the nation, as well as the health of all its citizens, above corporate interests.

In the U.S. Congress, the substitution of alternative, less toxic materials is not even part of the dialogue. Instead, the biggest trend since 9/11 is growing secrecy about which chemicals are used where and how they are transported. Public knowledge about chemical manufacturing is becoming increasing limited.

At the local level, by contrast, there are some hopeful signs. In January 2005, the Washington, D.C., city council voted to ban train and truck shipments of deadly chemicals within two miles of the Capitol. Other cities are considering similar bans. One railroad company has already filed suit, and others are likely to follow. Legislation that reroutes trains carrying explosives, extreme flammables, and cargo that is known in the transportation business as TIH—toxic by inhalation—will raise the cost of transporting such poisons and may encourage a shift toward alternative materials. It also may indicate that the public is beginning to wake up to the widespread risks of large-scale toxic production, which we have, so far, passively or unknowingly accepted.
And how can you not read an article subtitled "Why Your Kitchen Floor May Pose a Threat To National Security."