Development of Safer Materials Urgently Needed in Chemistry

As the story of the Norfolk Southern chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio, continues to unfold, we are learning how this freight train derailment polluted local waterways and released hazardous pollutants into the air. People returning to their homes talk about health issues and dead pets, and the Environmental Protection Agency is now forcing the train company to pay for the cleanup. While this incident highlights the need for safer chemical transport, we believe what happened is a call to rethink the chemistry that drives our economy.

The cargo manifest of the freight train shows that multiple cars contained combustible or flammable petroleum-based chemicals other than vinyl chloride. They include benzene and butyl acrylamide, which are precursors to plastics and other chemicals, as well as 2-butoxyethanol, a common ingredient in paint strippers and cleaning products. These chemicals include carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive and organ system toxins, and skin and respiratory irritants. Fish kills in affected streams raise concerns about the long-term safety of drinking water and soils. And scientists are only beginning to look at persistent and toxic byproducts, such as dioxins, created by the purposeful ignition of five tanker cars, in homes and soil. It is surprising that this cargo was not officially classified as hazardous.

If we want to end dangerous chemical incidents that make people and ecosystems sick, we must address our dependence on these chemicals and the manufacturing processes required to make them. This derailment and the chaos it has created must encourage chemists, the chemical industry and the companies that rely on chemical products to create safer and more sustainable chemicals, processes, materials and products.

The current generation of chemicals that underpin our economy, including vinyl chloride and benzene, were rapidly developed and scaled before the 1960s. Their chemistries were built on increasingly abundant fossil fuel platforms and designed for functionality and low cost. As the “industry of industry”, businesses used these chemicals to create new products and applications, especially to create plastics, and to advance transportation, communication and construction technologies. Although the environmental and occupational health laws of the 1970s and 1980s led to significant improvements in chemical safety, it is assumed that how we control these chemicals allows us to enjoy the benefits that the Norfolk Southern train carried. controlling the rails and risks. But these risks cannot be completely controlled.

The Ohio derailment was just one of more than 20,000 hazardous materials transportation incidents that occur each year. More than 11,000 facilities across the US make, use or store hazardous chemicals in amounts that could harm people or the environment, according to the US Government Accountability Office. And an average of 202 accidental releases per year occur at manufacturing, distribution and public works facilities. About one quarter of them affect nearby communities. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the annual quantified damages from chemical accidents are $434 million per year and the loss in property values ​​due to incidents in approximately 660 facilities from 2004 to 2019 is $39.5 billion. Many of these facilities are located in low-income communities of color and in areas with natural hazards that are likely to be exacerbated by climate change, increasing the potential for future toxic chemical incidents.

After several major chemical incidents, including the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, in the 1980s that killed thousands, a broad consensus emerged to shift chemical management strategies away from emissions controls, Tyvek suits, respirators and cleanup plans. emergency. Prevention of pollution at the source became a national priority with the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990. For many scientists and engineers, prevention at the source meant developing approaches to eliminate hazards by, for example, replacing dangerous chemicals in manufacturing processes with less dangerous chemicals or by redesigning production processes and products to negate or greatly reduce the use of toxic substances.

By the mid-1990s the concepts of basic safety, green engineering and green chemistry emerged which applied the principles of pollution prevention to molecular and process design. A diverse group of experts recently developed a definition of sustainable chemistry as “the development and application of chemicals, chemical processes, and products that benefit present and future generations without harmful effects on people or ecosystems .” The European Union has also developed criteria for chemicals that are “safe and sustainable by design.”

Bringing chemists and engineers together with health scientists to better understand, assess and eliminate environmental and health hazards at the design stage of chemicals and chemical processes will reduce the hazards to workers, communities and consumers from production, transport, use and end of life. chemical and chemical products. But despite growing interest in sustainable chemistry in the research and educational communities, it has not been fully embraced by industry and government.

Easier said than done is the transition to safer and less hazardous chemicals and products. The chemicals and materials we have today – including polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the main use of vinyl chloride – are cost-effective, perform well and are fully integrated into global supply chains. There is little incentive to switch, especially given the significant costs of research and development, piloting, capitalization and reformulation to integrate new, safer chemicals into the economy—and little willingness by anyone to bear the additional costs to pay that.

We will not adequately address the problems of hazardous chemicals without providing cost-effective and safer solutions. Rethinking the chemicals, manufacturing processes, and materials that drive our economy will require significant government coordination, investment, industry-wide collaboration, and meaningful engagement with academia and communities—the concerted effort and same continuous contribution to the current generation of chemicals. It will also require educating a new generation of chemists and engineers. Innovations in chemistry and chemical processes are key to addressing the hazards of chemicals, but they can also address the industry’s significant contribution to climate change and plastic waste, which are under increasing scrutiny from the investment community and government authorities. .

The federal government has a unique opportunity to demonstrate leadership in the advancement of sustainable chemistry by implementing the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act. And it can ensure that the massive investments made in manufacturing processes and materials to decarbonize the economy through the Deflation Act will also address the toxicity and hazards of our current chemicals and materials. (The chemical industry is responsible for 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, according to the Department of Energy.) Research shows that such investments would not only reduce the billions of dollars that toxic incidents cost us each year but would actually benefit the economy, positioning the US as a leader in innovation and sustainability.

It will take a long time – possibly decades – to design, implement and scale new chemicals and manufacturing processes, taking cycles of research, development and manufacturing. But in the meantime, to avoid another disaster in East Palestine, we must improve safety controls to protect communities and workers from such toxic tragedies. Those safety controls include requiring electronic braking systems, increasing the number of well-trained safety-focused workers, and assessing risks at facilities to adopt safer options when available.

Hundreds of people who were under mandatory evacuation have largely returned to their community, which is now the focus of a massive hazardous waste clean-up operation. These people deserve immediate action to address this disaster. But for all communities that have been or may be affected by hazardous chemical incidents, we need sustained long-term actions and investments to prevent such disasters by substituting inherently safer alternatives for manufacture, transport and use hazardous chemicals.

This is an article of opinion and analysis, and the views expressed by the author(s) are not necessarily those of American Science.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *