EAST PALESTINE, OHIO – February, 2023 – On Friday February 3rd at 9 p.m., 50 cars of a 141-car Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, which is in the northeast corner of the state near the Pennsylvania border. The derailment was felt to be due to a mechanical issue with the train. No injuries were reported. A large fire started near some of the derailed cars. Five of the cars were carrying hazardous chemicals, initially identified as vinyl chloride. These toxic chemicals had spilled at the derailment site and were released in the air and into the soil. Firefighters were fighting the fire, however, having hazardous materials near the fire made it difficult to safely put out the blaze. Two nights later, the temperature climbed rapidly in one of the rail cars, which contained the toxic substance, creating the potential for a major explosion. Under these circumstances, a controlled release was performed with small detonations and burn of all 5 cars containing the toxic material. The immediate area within 1 mile was evacuated because new toxic gases were emitted as combustion products and were potentially deadly. Governor DeWine called in the Ohio National Guard for assistance. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is monitoring the situation. A remediation is underway.
Vinyl chloride is an industrial chemical and gas that is used to produce PVC, a hard plastic used for pipes. High levels of exposure are known to cause liver cancer, liver disease, and brain, lung and blood cancers. It is unknown what can happen to persons with low levels of exposure to this toxic chemical. Vinyl chloride can travel in the air and also disperse in water. In the air, vinyl chloride can become rapidly diluted and sunlight can cause it to chemically break down. However, people should get medical treatment for severe exposure, if they smell the chemical or have symptoms of itchiness or dizziness. Vinyl chloride is filtered from all public water, but private wells can become contaminated if it enters the groundwater. If the well water is heated then vinyl chloride gas is released from the contaminated water. It accumulates and reaches high levels when taking a shower or cooking. The effects are made worse in enclosed spaces like shower stalls and small kitchens. It is recommended that all residents with private wells drink bottled water until their wells are tested and cleared. Vinyl chloride can decompose in the topsoil because of microbes. However, if it passes into the subsoil, it can remain there for years.
Burning vinyl chloride can create hydrogen chloride and phosgene gases. Phosgene is an industrial chemical that is used to make plastics and pesticides. Exposure to this toxic chemical can cause eye irritation, dry burning throat, vomiting, coughing, breathing difficulty and chest pain. Phosgene was used as a chemical weapon in World War 1 as a choking agent. Hydrogen chloride can irritate the eyes, skin and breathing passages. Severe exposure can cause lung problems and even death. It can pass from the air into the ground water. Particle pollution can also result from burning many types of material. This pollutant can cause and aggravate heart and lung disease, childhood asthma, reduce life expectancy, and can increase the risk of adverse birth outcomes. Toxic material can attach themselves to the small particles, travel long distances through the air and settle in water and soil.
Four other toxic substances were identified on the train, days later, in addition to vinyl chloride. One is a known cancer-causing substance. Contact with them can irritate the eyes, skin and breathing passages and can cause shortness of breath. Other adverse health impacts may include dizziness, headaches, vomiting and blood in the urine.
The evacuation orders were lifted on February 8th, when it was deemed that the air and water was safe by the EPA. The public water supply to Ohio and West Virginia has been deemed safe too. However, some of the toxic substances had spilled into the adjacent Ohio River near West Virginia. As of February 17th, more than 1 thousand people have been adversely affected by exposure to the toxic chemicals.
Ohio Governor DeWine asked the CDC and HHS for assistance on February 16th. The Biden administration has sent federal medical experts to the accident site to assess the public health impact of the train derailment. A chemical stench still lingers in the area; thousands of fish have been killed by the contamination in nearby rivers and streams; and many residents still complain of headaches and throat pain.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan said during a February 16th news conference, “I want the community to know that we hear you, we see you, and that we will get to the bottom of this.”
Listen to the full report below:
Contact: Dr. Dick Needleman, Health reporter, 103.3 AshevilleFM, email@example.com