On Friday, Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying various toxic chemicals derailed in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio – just 90 miles southeast of Cleveland. Of the 150 cars the train was carrying, 38 derailed, causing fire and damage to an additional 12 cars. A total of 20 cars were carrying hazardous chemicals, 11 of which derailed. This has caused major concerns to the air, soil and water systems within the area.
Chemicals including vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether were released upon derailment. A “controlled release” of 5 cars carrying vinyl chloride took place on Feb. 6 by Northfolk Southern causing large, hazardous black clouds to spread across the area.
According to the National Library of Medicine, vinyl chloride may emit fumes or carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride and phosgene when heated. Exposure to high levels of vinyl chloride can affect the central and peripheral nervous system and cause respiratory irritation as well as liver, brain, or lung cancer. Respiratory and skin irritation may also be a side effect of ethylene glycol monobutyl ether exposure.
High exposure to butyl acrylate and ethylhexyl acrylate can cause similar effects of drowsiness, headaches, dizziness and nausea. Butyl acrylate may also cause skin irritation and difficulty breathing at acute levels.
Prior to the controlled release, residents within a one mile to two mile radius were ordered to evacuate their homes. Those within the area would face grave danger upon the controlled release if not evacuated, potentially exposing themselves to serious injury or death. Those with children in their home who declined to evacuate may have been subject to arrest.
On Feb. 8, it was deemed safe for residents to return home, however, there have since been various reports of dead animals and sick residents miles from the area of the derailment.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has monitored over 500 homes within the area for air quality and water supply, and both have been deemed safe. However, residents of the area remain skeptical and demand more answers and several have sought water testing from independent companies.
Ohio Governor Mike Dewine and Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff have advised those within the area to drink bottled water.
“I would be drinking the bottled water and I would be continuing to find out what the tests were showing as far as the air,” Dewine said in an update on Feb. 14.
Following the derailment, Ohio House Democrats have called for stricter railroad safety legislation including requirements for at least a two-person railroad crew on trains, up-to-date Railway Wayside Detector Systems, and increased funding to the Ohio Rail Development Commission.