Vinyl chloride

March 06, 2023
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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.


Vinyl chloride hazard information*

Hazard class**GHS code and hazard statement
Flammable gases, category 1H220—Extremely flammable gas; may form explosive mixtures with airChemical Safety Warning
Gases under pressure, liquefied gasH280—Contains gas under pressure; may explode if heatedChemical Safety Warning
Acute toxicity, dermal, category 2H310—Fatal in contact with skinChemical Safety Warning
Serious eye damage/eye irritation, category 2BH320—Causes eye irritationChemical Safety Warning
Specific target organ toxicity, single exposure, respiratory tract irritation, category 3H335—May cause respiratory irritationChemical Safety Warning
Specific target organ toxicity, single exposure, narcotic effects, category 3H336—May cause drowsiness or dizzinessChemical Safety Warning
Germ cell mutagenicity, category 2H341—Suspected of causing genetic defectsChemical Safety Warning
Carcinogenicity, category 1AH350—May cause cancerChemical Safety Warning
Reproduction toxicity, category 2H361—Suspected of damaging fertility or the unborn childChemical Safety Warning
Specific target organ toxicity, repeated exposure, category 1H372—Causes damage to liver, blood, nervous system, lymphatic system, musculoskeletal system, respiratory system, through prolonged or repeated exposureChemical Safety Warning
Simple asphyxiant***May displace oxygen and cause rapid suffocation

*Compilation of multiple safety data sheets.
**Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. Explanation of pictograms.
*** Hazard class not included in GHS; no pictogram assigned.


Additional East Palestine chemical releases

Vinyl acetate was the most hazardous chemical released in East Palestine, but the five other compounds that were released pose various degrees of danger as well. Two are solvents and the other three are monomers. The table lists the chemicals and their hazardous properties.

Compound           CA Reg. No.Amount released (L)Primary
uses
Primary hazardous
propertiesa
Benzene71-43-2228,000SolventCarcinogen
2-Butoxyethanolb111-76-2114,000Solvent, surfactantSkin, eye
damage / irritation
Isobutylene115-11-7114,000Monomer, feedstockGas under pressure, asphyxiant
n-Butyl acrylate141-32-2114,000MonomerSkin, eye irritation / sensitization
2-Ethylhexyl acrylate103-11-798,000MonomerSkin irritation / sensitization, reproductive toxicity

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Vinyl chloride fast facts

CAS Reg. No.75-01-4
SciFinder nomenclatureEthene, chloro-
Empirical formulaC2H3Cl
Molar mass62.50 g/mol 
AppearanceColorless gas
Boiling point–13 °C
Water solubility≈1.0 g/L (15–85 °C)
Chemical Abstract Service - a division of ACS

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