What are the Potential Health Hazards of East Palestine, Ohio Train Derailment?
Health and environmental concerns are mounting in East Palestine, Ohio after several derailed train cars released toxic fumes last week. On Feb 3, about 50 cars of a Norfolk Southern train went off track in Ohio, causing a days-long fire in the area Ten of the 50 derailed cars contained hazardous chemicals, including butyl acrylate and vinyl chloride, among combustible liquids that authorities feared could set off a major explosion.
East Palestine, Ohio crews conduct a ‘controlled release of toxic chemicals from derailed train cars.
Residents of East Palestine were later asked to evacuate out of precaution. On Monday, Feb. 6, crews conducted what officials called a “controlled release” of the hazardous chemicals, which caused a large plume of black smoke.
The evacuation order was lifted on Wednesday. Since then, there have been a growing number of reports about people experiencing a burning sensation in their eyes, animals falling ill, and a strong odor lingering in the town.
Some business owners and East Palestine residents have filed lawsuits against Norfolk Southern, saying the company was negligent and demanding the company fund court-supervised medical screenings of severe illnesses that may be caused by exposure to those chemicals.
Air quality continues to be monitored indoors and outdoors.
Local officials have insisted that the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink in East Palestine.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which has been monitoring the air quality, said it has not detected “any levels of concern” in East Palestine since Sunday.
The agency added that vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride had not been detected in the 291 homes screened as of Monday. The voluntary indoor air screening program has 181 homes left to be evaluated.
East Palestine, Released toxic fumes that have short and long-term side effects
On Sunday, the EPA released a list, written by Norfolk Southern, of the toxic chemicals in the derailed cars. In addition to vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, it mentions ethylhexyl acrylate, which can cause headaches, nausea, and respiratory problems in people exposed to it, as well as isobutylene, which can make people dizzy and drowsy.
Of particular concern is the vinyl chloride, loaded on five cars — a carcinogen that becomes a gas at room temperature. It is commonly used to make polyvinyl chloride or PVC, a plastic used for pipes, wire, cable coatings, and car parts.
When vinyl chloride is exposed to the environment, it breaks down from sunlight within a few days and changes into other chemicals, such as formaldehyde. When it is spilled in soil or surface water, the chemical evaporates into the air quickly, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
Breathing or drinking vinyl chloride can cause several health risks, including dizziness and headaches. People who have lived with the chemical for years may also experience liver damage.
The EPA has been monitoring several other hazardous chemicals, including phosgene and hydrogen chloride, which are released by burning vinyl chloride. Exposure to phosgene can cause eye irritation, dryness, burning throat, and vomiting. Meanwhile, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hydrogen chloride can irritate the skin, nose, eyes, and throat.
The Columbiana County Health Department told residents to reach out to their medical provider if they experience symptoms.
An expert recommends cleaning surfaces and vacuuming carefully.
The harmful effects of these toxic chemicals largely depend on concentration and exposure.
“Now that we are entering into a longer-term phase of this, people are going to be concerned about the long-term chronic exposure that comes at lower levels,” said Karen Dannemiller, a professor at Ohio State University who studies indoor air quality.
She added that indoor spaces could be an essential point of exposure, which is why she urges East Palestine residents to participate in the EPA’s at-home air screening.
Dannemiller recommends that residents wipe down surfaces, especially areas that collect dust and wash items that absorb smells, such as bedsheets and curtains She also advises vacuuming carefully in short bursts to prevent contaminants from moving into the air.
Air cleaners and masks are likely no match for hazardous chemicals like vinyl chloride because of their tiny molecules,
Train derailment in Ohio could bring cancer risk to millions
In early June, an eastbound Norfolk Southern train derailed in rural East Palestine, Ohio. The train was carrying hazardous chemicals, including vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen. The derailment and subsequent chemical release led to the evacuation of nearly 1,000 people from their homes.
Vinyl chloride is a colorless gas that is used in the production of PVC plastic. It is classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and is known to cause liver cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that long-term exposure to vinyl chloride can increase the risk of liver cancer by as much as 1 in 100,000 people.
The derailment in East Palestine released an estimated 30,000 gallons of vinyl chloride into the air. The chemical quickly dissipated, but residents who were exposed to the fumes are at risk for developing cancer. The EPA has advised people who live within a mile of the derailment to leave their homes and go to a safe location.
The health hazards of vinyl chloride exposure are well-documented, but the long-term health effects of the East Palestine derailment are unknown. It could take years for the cancer risk to materialize, and by then, it may be too late for residents to take action.
The derailment in East Palestine is a tragic event, but it highlights the need for better safety measures to protect communities from the risks of hazardous chemicals. The EPA should require railroads to disclose the contents of their trains, and states should create emergency response plans in case of a derailment. These measures would help protect people from the potentially deadly consequences of exposure to hazardous chemicals.