There’s a common thread linking many of the high-profile chemical spills that have made headlines across the country lately: the oil and gas industry.
Philadelphia residents were on high alert after the Trinseo latex plant 20 miles from the city released at least 8,100 gallons of acrylic polymers into a tributary for the Delaware River on March 24. Those acrylic polymers were made up of compounds known as butyl acrylate, ethyl acrylate, and methyl methacrylate; all are produced from fossil fuels.
Last month, East Palestine, Ohio, faced a Norfolk Southern train derailment with highly volatile toxic chemicals, including butyl acrylate and vinyl chloride — which is also derived from oil. On March 28, 10 barges, including one containing 1,400 metric tons of methanol — yup, you guessed it, made from oil or gas — broke loose in the Ohio River in Kentucky.
Many other incidents don’t make national news: The Guardian reported that the US has averaged a chemical accident every two days so far in 2023. Every year, there’s an average of 202 accidental chemical releases at facilities, according to EPA data.
This adds up to a major threat to water quality. “In the US, chemical exposure probably is the biggest threat to water quality, particularly drinking water quality, whether that is direct chemical exposure from facilities like what happened in Philadelphia or chemical exposure from products,” said Joel Tickner, who is a professor of public health at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and leads the nonprofit Green Chemistry & Commerce Council.
All these events are usually lumped together in the vague category of a chemical spill, but it’s important to get more specific than that. Petrochemicals — as this class of compounds are known — are ubiquitous today, used to make some form of the plastic found in detergents, cosmetics, clothing, packaging, and more. (The Trinseo plant near Philadelphia, for instance, was basically making paint.)