Cover photo courtesy of National Transportation Safety Board on Wikimedia Commons
On Friday, February 3rd, a train derailed near East Palestine, Ohio. Some of the toppled cars contained various harmful chemicals, and East Palestine residents are worried for the safety of both themselves and the environment, as officials investigate the scene and keep a watchful eye for any signs of serious contamination.
The train, owned by Norfolk Southern Railway, derailed near East Palestine just before 9 PM EST. East Palestine is a village, founded nearly 200 years ago, containing about 4,800 people, and located near Ohio’s border with Pennsylvania. Most of the train’s nearly 150 cars contained non-hazardous cargo, such as cement and frozen vegetables. Included in the approximately three dozen cars that derailed were eleven of the twenty total cars that contained hazardous chemicals. (NPR).
Those eleven train cars contained numerous different chemicals including not just vinyl chloride, but also substances such as butyl acrylate and ethylhexyl acrylate (CBS News). These chemicals all come with significant risk. Vinyl chloride can make someone more susceptible to a rare form of liver cancer and can enter homes connected to a contaminated water supply. If someone comes into contact with butyl acrylate, it can irritate the eyes, skin, and upper respiratory system and continued exposure can cause permanent lung damage. Finally, ethylhexyl acrylate can cause shortness of breath and buildup of fluid in the lungs when inhaled and is also an explosion hazard.
During the weekend after the derailment, firefighters worked to quell the fire that had started as a result of the derailment. As concerns arose that rising temperatures could cause some of the chemicals to explode, officials evacuated a one by two mile area around East Palestine. On Monday, February 6th, the vinyl chloride in the cars was released into a trench where it was burned off in a controlled explosion. The evacuation order was lifted on Wednesday, February 8th once the fire was finally extinguished.
In the hours immediately after the derailment occurred, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent personnel to assess potential for environmental damage. According to USA Today, experts say they have good reason to believe the air and water at the site of the derailment are safe. The EPA has conducted tests of the municipal water supply of East Palestine and said it detected no contamination associated with the derailment. The EPA has also been monitoring the air, both outside and inside the homes of East Palestine residents, in which no detection of vinyl chloride has been identified.
However, there have also been a growing number of reports about people experiencing a burning sensation in their eyes, lingering, pungent odors around the town, and animals falling ill and dying. Federal teams began going door-to-door conducting health surveys and handing out flyers that contain resources and information should the residents start feeling ill. Members of the EPA, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began going door-to-door after President Biden directed the agencies to do so on Friday, February 24th (CNN).
Even a month after the train initially derailed, residents are still feeling its effects. One of the four lawsuits filed by Ohio and Pennsylvania residents against Norfolk Southern Railway estimates that more than 1,000 people have been affected. Citizens can only wait to see how this event unfolds.