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  • Writer's pictureRissa Liu

Ohio Train Derailment: Hazardous Chemicals Effect on our Health


(Image Credit: Xinhua News Agency, Getty Images, File)

At 8:55 p.m. on Feb. 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern Company freight train carrying dangerous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Following the accident, residents in the area affected by the derailment were ordered to evacuate while officials began investigating possible health and environmental hazards from the chemical release.


According to the report from the Environmental Protection Agency, twenty out of thirty-eight rail cars carried precarious chemical materials. Those chemicals that were released into the air after the rail cars burned include vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethyl hexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ethers [1]. After the chemical leak, people are most concerned about the health effects of vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride is a highly flammable and explosive gas that can cause permanent damage to the human central nervous system after acute exposure. There are also concerns about the health effects of chronic exposure, as residents within 1.6 kilometers of the derailment event have been evacuated following the derailment. Inhaled vinyl chloride can cause hepatic angiosarcoma, but its effects are treatable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that most people exposed to vinyl chloride can fully recover [2].


However, the progress of the investigation indicates that the impact of the derailment on the environment and the health of residents is not optimistic. To prevent the vinyl chloride from exploding, emergency crews in South Norfolk controlled the release by setting five vinyl chloride tanks on fire. Vinyl chloride decomposes to hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and traces of phosgene after reaching high temperature. Those components of vinyl chloride are not explosive in room temperature, therefore they are safer in the environment from the flammability standpoint. Recent research reveals that dioxin levels in the soil in East Palestine, Ohio, the site of a recent catastrophic train wreck, are hundreds of times higher than the exposure level that EPA scientists determined in 2010, indicating a higher cancer risk [3]. Burning vinyl chloride produces persistent dioxins. Although officials said tests conducted by the state EPA showed no contaminants in the municipal water system, residents found large numbers of fish and animals dead near the spill and people suffered from headaches, coughs, and rashes [4]. On March 6, CDC staff investigating the incident all developed symptoms typical of chemical exposure. After a day, workers reported that their symptoms had resolved [5]. Years of exposure to vinyl chloride can affect the liver, nervous system, and skin, and long-term exposure can cause a rare form of liver cancer. Dioxins, which accumulate in food chains throughout the world and in the environment, are toxic and harmful to the immune system, nervous system, endocrine system, and reproductive functions.


With the cause of the derailment and long-term health effects still under investigation, residents living in the area of the chemical spill can avoid inhaling large amounts of the chemical by drinking bottled water and staying as far away as possible.

 

References


[1] Hauser, Christine. “How the Ohio Train Derailment and Its Aftermath Unfolded.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Mar. 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/article/ohio-train-derailment-timeline.html.

[2] “Vinyl Chloride.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 Oct. 2014, https://wwwn.cdc.gov/TSP/MMG/MMGDetails.aspx?mmgid=278&toxid=51.

[3] “Air Sampling Data: East Palestine, Ohio Train Derailment.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 1 Apr. 2023, https://www.epa.gov/oh/air-sampling-data-east-palestine-ohio-train-derailment.

[4] Bartels, Meghan. “Chemical Health Risks from the Ohio Train Accident-What We Know so Far.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 16 Feb. 2023, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/chemical-health-risks-from-the-ohio-train-accident-what-we-know-so-far/.

[5] Matthews, David. “CDC Workers Got Sick Investigating Ohio Train Derailment.” New York Daily News, 3 Apr. 2023, https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/ny-cdc-workers-sick-investigate-ohio-train-derailment-20230403-soy4efwbyrgarkilysj5v4teye-story.html.

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