What molecule am I?
Vinyl chloride is a colorless gas with a mild, sweet odor that belies how hazardous it is. (See the hazard information table.) It has been in the news lately because of the February 3 rail disaster in East Palestine, OH.
Vinyl chloride has been known since at least 1835, when Henri Victor Regnault at the University of Giessen (Germany)1 synthesized it via the reaction of 1,2-dichloroethane2 and potassium hydroxide in ethanol solution. 1,2-Dichloroethane, frequently called ethylene dichloride, is still the precursor to vinyl chloride today. In 2021, the worldwide market for vinyl chloride was 51 megatonnes.
By far the largest use of vinyl chloride is in the manufacture of poly(vinyl chloride)3 (PVC) plastics, which have a multitude of applications that range from pipes to packaging to phonograph records (“vinyls”). Until the 1970s, vinyl chloride was also a commercial refrigerant; its use was discontinued because of its virulent toxicity.
The train derailment in East Palestine included five railcars that carried almost 500,000 L of vinyl chloride as a liquefied gas. Only one of the cars released a small amount of its contents; but the authorities, fearing a vinyl chloride explosion caused by fires from other derailed cars, decided to conduct a controlled release and burn of the chemical in all five cars. This operation resulted not only in the release of highly toxic vinyl chloride but also in the formation of extremely hazardous combustion products, particularly the gases hydrogen chloride4 and phosgene5.
For other compounds released by the derailment, see the sidebar “Additional East Palestine chemical releases”. In the weeks after the accident, the handling of its effects on the residents was widely criticized, as reported in C&EN on February 17.
The authorities state that the cleanup is mostly complete; but air, soil, and water testing will continue indefinitely. Although the US Environmental Protection Agency states that the air quality is normal, residents continue to experience symptoms such as headaches and rashes. The release will likely cause long-term environmental damage.
EPA issues a daily update on its response to the derailment.
1. Regnault was a student of the renowned chemist Justus von Liebig, for whom the university is now named.
2. CA Reg. No. 107-06-2.
3. CA Reg. No. 9002-86-2.
4. CA Reg. No. 7647-01-0.
5. CA Reg. No. 75-44-5.
Learn more about this molecule from CAS, the most authoritative and comprehensive source for chemical information.