Fireballs in the Night Sky, Death by a Thousand Cuts

Sandra Steingraber | May 03, 2004 | Materials

Lessons From The Formosa PVC Plant, Illiopolis, Illinois

One morning ten years ago, I was at work on a book about environmental health when the phone rang. It was my Uncle Roy. He wanted me to know that a developer had come to town peddling a plan to construct a giant waste incinerator in the cornfield next to his own. What the man was planning to burn in it, he said, was old auto interiors, including a lot of PVC plastic. If the people of the township went along, the company would build the school a new library.

Now how did they know we needed a library, my uncle wondered. And what did I know about a chemical called dioxin? Funny he should ask. I was just drafting that chapter.

So I took leave of the Harvard Medical School Library and went back home to library-less central Illinois to throw my hat in the ring with my mother's brother and a group of other farmers who had vowed to fight the incinerator.

And we won. Not only did Forrest, Illinois vote down the incinerator plan, it was defeated in six other small, impoverished farming communities where the same developer had dangled it. People looked out at their turkeys, hogs, and fields of corn and imagined what could happen if one semi-truck full of dioxin-laden incinerator ash overturned on a windy day. It just wasn't worth the risk, they decided.

One decade later, central Illinoisians are confronted with a similar choice. This time it involves the manufacture of PVC rather than its destruction.

On April 23, 2004, the PVC plant in Illiopolis, Illinois blew up, spewing fireballs into the night sky, cutting power and water, and sending all of the village's 900-something inhabitants into makeshift shelters in distant towns. Four workers were killed instantly. Three remain hospitalized.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is now gearing up for an investigation of the long-term environmental health effects of the explosion. Its chairwoman, Carolyn W. Merritt, has called the explosion at Illiopolis among the most serious the agency has ever investigated. So far, no signs of air or water contamination have been uncovered. On the other hand, at this writing, investigators have not been able to get closer than a quarter mile to the plant because of safety concerns.

But, let's suppose that no chemical contamination from the plant's destruction is ever found. Let's imagine that thousands of pounds of vinyl chloride and vinyl acetate-which workers were mixing at the time of detonation-somehow all burned up without leaving behind any toxic residues in the community's air or water or farm fields. It would still be a bad idea to rebuild this plant. Which, right now, is the current plan.

Each year, the Illiopolis PVC plant releases into the air more than 40,000 pounds of vinyl chloride, a recognized human carcinogen and reproductive toxicant. It releases another 40,000 pounds of vinyl acetate, a suspected carcinogen and neurotoxin. In other words, under normal operating conditions, this plant routinely discharges into the surrounding community more than 40 tons of toxic chemicals annually. That works out to 220 pounds of known and probable carcinogens every single day. The weight of a large man.

Such releases make this plant one of Illinois' biggest polluters. But when you stack the Illiopolis facility next to all the other PVC plants in the United States, of which there are about 40, it pales in comparison. Its emissions are far from the worst. (Oxyvinyl in Pasadena, Texas releases more than 100,000 pounds of vinyl chloride annually.)

Even absent horrific accidents like the one in Illiopolis, which made headlines across the world, there seems to be no way of making PVC without contaminating somebody's beloved hometown with cancer-causing substances. And that fact alone should be sufficient to compel us to seek out substitutes for PVC for all its various uses.

Here are the names of those who died in the recent Illiopolis explosion: Joseph Machalek, age 50; Larry Graves; age 47; Glenn Lyman, age 49; Linda Hancock, age 56.

What are the names of those who have died of cancer caused by the routine operation of this same plant over the years? Who have suffered miscarriages, birth defects, or neurological disorders due to their constant exposure to reproductive and neurological poisons? It is an unknown and unknowable number. But it may well exceed four. And it may be too high a price to pay for vinyl.

Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., grew up in Pekin, Illinois. She is a biologist and author of the book Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment. She is currently on the faculty of Ithaca College in New York.


Update on the Environmental Health Impacts of PVC as a Building Material: Evidence from 2000-2004 (April, 2004)

Last month, the Healthy Building Network submitted an update of the scientific evidence published since its December 2000 submission to the USGBC on the environmental effects of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) building materials. Written by our guest columnist, Dr. Steingraber, the report is intended to serve as a reader's guide to the primary documents, reports, and data submitted to the USGBC's Technical and Advisory Committee (TSAC) in response to its November 2003 solicitation for evidence.