FEB 16, 2023 6:45 AM PST

Will the Toxic Train Spill Hurt My Heart?

In the wake of growing health concerns following the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which has resulted in the release of toxic chemicals such as butyl acrylate and other substances, there has been significant speculation over precisely what the short-term and long-term health consequences of exposure to such chemicals will be. One chemical in particular that has been used extensively in developing pipes and building materials is vinyl chloride (VC). The substance can be found in municipal landfills and various types of manufacturing facilities. VC is a group 1 human carcinogen linked to significant health effects such as liver cancer. It is ranked fourth on the CDC’s Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry Substance Priority List. Less is known, however, about the effect of VC on cardiovascular disease and metabolic function.

In 2008, a cohort analysis of over 1600 workers in Italy was performed to assess the mortality of workers in a VC production plant. Significant increases in mortality were observed across the workforce relative to controls as well as an increase in cardiovascular diseases. It should be noted that the follow-up period for this study was over 20 years and evaluated those with direct exposure to the chemical. The long-term impact of acute exposure to VC has yet to be elucidated. In 2012, a freight train derailed in New Jersey, releasing VC resulting in persistent symptoms among some exposed, with patients continuing to seek care for about a month after the incident. Reassuringly, no patients experienced any life-threatening symptoms. But what about the effect of chronic low-dose exposure to VC on cardiovascular health? In 2022, an animal study addressed whether chronic low-dose exposure to VC would lead to vascular inflammation and heart disease. Although mice exposed to VC revealed mild lung inflammation, exposure did not impact markers of cardiovascular injury.

An overview of the available literature reveals significant health issues associated with VC among those with direct, high-dose, and chronic exposure. Most studies evaluating the health effects of VC exposure focus on intermediate-chronic exposure duration, and specifically its carcinogenic properties and impact on the liver and nervous system. Although there is no conclusive evidence to suggest an association between VC exposure and heart disease, there is still reason to exercise caution when it comes to exposure to VC. The effects of acute exposure can be severe, resulting in dizziness and disorientation, and should not be ignored if they develop. Moreover, the multisystemic nature of VC’s toxic effects increases the odds that long-term consequences could present themselves with longer follow-up.

Sources: NPR, Environmental Toxicology, BMC Public Health, Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

About the Author
Medical Doctorate (MD)
Dr. Christopher DiMaio is a Science Writer at Labroots. He received his MD from Penn State College of Medicine in 2014. His academic and professional interests include Neuroscience, Behavioral health, Immunology, and Healthcare improvement, among others. He is an active part of his community.
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