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The town motto of East Palestine, Ohio, is “The place you want to be!” But at present, nothing could be further from the truth. The Norfolk Southern train derailment that occurred in East Palestine earlier this month resulted in a chemical fire and spill large enough to prompt the evacuation of up to 2,000 residents. Several hazardous materials were inadvertently discharged into the air and water supply, followed by a purposeful “controlled release” to avoid further unwanted combustion. One of the primary chemicals of concern is vinyl chloride, a human-made, colorless gas used to make polyvinyl chloride or vinyl—the most commonly used polymer in building construction. According to the National Cancer Institute, vinyl chloride exposure is associated with cancers of the liver, brain, and lungs, as well as leukemia and lymphoma. Now that East Palestine residents have been permitted to return to their homes, a new clinic has opened to address growing symptoms such as shortness of breath, headaches, and nose bleeds.

The East Palestine calamity has provoked a round of finger-pointing to highlight the true culprit of the incident, with Norfolk Southern and the U.S. Department of Transportation taking the bulk of the blame. But no one seems to be criticizing the chemicals themselves: If the 150-car train that derailed had been carrying nontoxic cargo, no evacuations would have been necessary, no animals would have died, and the water and air would have remained unpolluted. With no hazardous ingredients, the incident would have warranted a local news story instead of sparking a national uproar. It’s remarkable that, amid all the anger and speculation stoked by the catastrophe, few are questioning why hazardous chemicals like vinyl chloride have become common and acceptable substances in human society.

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