On February 3rd, a 150-car train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The derailment caused a chemical explosion and dayslong fire, as well as a subsequent “controlled release” of known carcinogens. Though the town was evacuated, concerns about the hazardous air pollutants released during the incident linger. There are also lingering concerns about water and soil quality as well as questions about railroad regulations for hazardous materials.
Train derailments aren’t something new; more than 250 trains have derailed in the last decade. Roughly half of these were carrying hazardous materials, though the Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine was not being regulated as a “high-hazard flammable train,” according to documents reviewed by The Lever, an investigative news outlet. The Lever reported, “Documents show that when current transportation safety rules were first created, a federal agency sided with industry lobbyists and limited regulations governing the transport of hazardous compounds. The decision effectively exempted many trains hauling dangerous materials—including the one in Ohio—from the “high-hazard” classification and its more stringent safety requirements.”
The train was carrying multiple petrochemicals used to make plastics and paints known to be harmful to human health, including vinyl chloride. This colorless gas has been linked to cancers of the liver, lung, and brain, as well as leukemia and lymphoma. Acute exposures to vinyl chloride can be deadly. And petrochemical research suggests that exposure to chemicals like vinyl chloride may be especially harmful for children. Because air toxics travel, the impact of this incident extends much farther than East Palestine, putting communities, including many families, across the Ohio River Valley region at risk, too.
Vinyl chloride is best known as the main chemical used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC plastic is used in pipes, wire and cable coatings, car parts, and even toys. The EPA found four additional chemicals known to have been released into the air, surface soils, and surface waters:
- Ethylhexy acrylate
- Ethylene glycol monobutyl
- Butyl acrylate
The health repercussions of these chemicals range from eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation to permanent lung, liver, and kidney damage. Ethylene glycol monobutyl is a known human carcinogen. Two of the train cars contained benzene, another known human carcinogen linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukemia. High doses can cause short-term side effects like dizziness and confusion.
Just two days after the train derailment, Ohio residents were told they could go back home. Many citizens are understandably concerned about returning and are reporting strange odors, burning in their eyes, and sick and dying animals and fish.
When Ohio Governor Mike DeWine was asked if he would go home if he lived in East Palestine he said, “Look, I think that I would be drinking the bottle of water, and I would be continuing to find out what the tests were showing as far as the air. I would be alert and concerned, but I think I would probably be back in my house.”
Now, almost two weeks after the derailment, parents concerns continue to be heightened, and they want answers: “Is it OK to still be here? Are my kids safe? Are the people safe? Is the future of this community safe?” a father, Lenny Glavan, asked reporters yesterday at a meeting with officials.
Even though Norfolk Southern, the transportation provider responsible for the derailed train, said they were committed to staying in East Palestine until the damage was cleaned up, the EPA says they already failed to properly dispose of contaminated soil in their effort to get the railway reopened quickly.
This only adds to residents’ concerns about their safety. Some residents have filed a federal lawsuit against Norfolk Southern. As the toxic chemicals released by the derailment remain in the air, soil, and water, many people are scared that an accident like this might happen again in the future, potentially in an even more densely populated area.
Erin Brockovich is one activist calling on President Biden to do more to help the people in East Palestine and also to prevent future spills. “Doing better than your predecessor, is not doing enough. The Biden administration needs to get more involved in this #PalestineOhio train derailment now. We are counting on you to break the chain of administration after administration to turn a blind eye. STEP UP NOW,” she wrote on Twitter.
EPA, other government agencies, and Norfolk Southern need to take full responsibility for the impacts of toxic petrochemical pollution along their routes. State and federal officials must dedicate the resources necessary to protect the communities affected by this avoidable incident and urgently revisit the policies necessary to ensure that these events do not happen again. All people deserve clean air and water.