Toxic Exposure Concerns Grow During Train Derailment Cleanup

Ohio Train Derailment Health Risks

As cleanup efforts continue months after a freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, concerns persist about toxic exposure from hazardous chemicals that leaked or burned following the accident.

Government officials have assured residents that the air and municipal water supply are safe, however, local residents have complained about a range of symptoms, including headaches, sore throats, skin rashes, nasal congestion, and nausea. Meanwhile, seven government investigators from the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) became ill while studying the possible health impacts of the train derailment. Their symptoms were similar to those experienced by residents.

According to toxicology experts, the chemical makeup of a spill can change over time as the mix of chemicals interacts with the atmosphere, soil and groundwater, potentially creating new threats. Toxicologists also note that chemicals tend to seep downward into soil and municipal water sources – including those that previously tested safe.

About the Ohio Train Derailment 

In February 2023, 38 cars on a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Twenty of the cars contained dangerous, highly combustible chemicals. Following the crash, authorities decided to start a fire to burn off the hazardous chemicals rather than risk an explosion.

According to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the two primary chemicals released into the environment as a result of the accident were vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate. The freight train contained several other chemicals of concern, such as benzene and ethylhexyl acrylate.

Chemicals seeped into the soil and air, as well as into two small creeks that run through East Palestine.

Environmental Fallout and Impact on Human Health 

Following the Ohio train derailment, the CDC investigators conducted an Assessment of Chemical Exposure (known as an ACE investigation). Early results showed that more than half of respondents experienced symptoms after the derailment.

According to a professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University, the train contained chemicals that have been associated with serious health effects, including cancer.

Testing conducted by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency showed that the two creeks running through East Palestine are testing positive for chemicals released during the derailment. About 3,500 fish in those creeks died after the incident.

About the Two Main Chemicals Released During the Accident

Vinyl chloride is a man made chemical that burns easily. It is used to make a type of plastic called PVC, which is used in pipes, wire and cable coatings, car parts and other materials. Negative health effects associated with the chemical include:

  • Breathing vinyl chloride can cause headaches and dizziness and can also irritate skin and eyes. Breathing vinyl chloride gas has also been associated with liver damage, and breathing extremely high levels of the substance can be fatal.
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists vinyl chloride as carcinogenic to humans. Burning vinyl chloride can produce dioxins, which are known to cause cancer, infertility, type 2 diabetes and immune disorders.

What is butyl acrylate?

A colorless liquid with a strong odor, butyl acrylate is used to make various plastics, coatings, and resins. According to the CDC, exposure to butyl acrylate can irritate the skin and eyes, and also cause rashes and difficulty breathing. Repeated exposure has been linked to lung cancer.

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