A train derailment near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border last Friday has forced residents living nearby to evacuate their homes for fear they could be injured or even killed by exposure to the toxic chemicals in some of the rail cars.
What do we know about the release — and just how dangerous are these chemicals?
There’s a reason evacuations have been ordered for the communities near this site; this is toxic stuff.
The Washington Post and other news outlets have reported that five of the derailed tanker cars were carrying vinyl chloride, a hazardous, odorless chemical that’s mostly used in the United States in the manufacturing of plastics. It turns up in everyday items such as packaging materials, housewares and wire and cable coatings.
Vinyl chloride is also a carcinogen that’s been linked to increased risk of liver cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that breathing vinyl chloride over long periods “may be connected” to brain cancer, lung cancers and some cancers of the blood. But much of what we know about how this chemical affects people is from studies of workers who’ve breathed it in for long stretches of time. It’s less understood how a sudden release, such as the one in Ohio, could affect people living nearby — or how the authorities’ decision to burn off the vinyl chloride might affect its dispersal.
“Short-term exposure to high levels can cause dizziness, drowsiness, fatigue and headaches,” Maria Doa, the senior director for chemicals policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an email.
The Environmental Protection Agency says it’s monitoring two other chemicals, phosgene and hydrogen chloride, that may be released into the air by the controlled burn. Neither of these is good news, either. Phosgene was used as a weapon in World War I and is a highly toxic gas that can lead to choking, chest constriction and in the most acute exposures possibly even death. Hydrogen chloride, which has a pungent odor, can irritate the throat, nose and skin.
How often do accidents like this happen?
Train derailments occur roughly 1,000 times a year in the United States, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, although not all result in leakage of toxic chemicals.
There have been multiple reports of chemical spills from rail cars in the last year. In Peoria, Ill., last winter, the highly explosive gas methyl chloride escaped from a loose valve on a rail car, leading the fire department to evacuate a two-block radius around the scene, according to a local news report. In August, the Los Angeles Times reported that a chemical leak from a tanker car traveling along a railway in Perris, Calif., caused firefighters to shut down part of the I-215 freeway and evacuate the surrounding area.
“These accidents happen all the time, but often they just don’t make the media,” said Erik Olson, a senior strategic director at the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council. Unplanned releases of hazardous substances usually occur at the factories and manufacturing facilities where chemicals are being made or used, he said.
If the amount of the toxic chemical release is large enough, it has to be reported to the EPA. But it’s not often that a train derailment, followed by forced evacuations, brings this issue to the public’s attention.
Accidents are “virtually inevitable,” Olson said. “That’s why we believe we need to be moving towards [using] less toxic chemicals that are not going to poison people if you have an accident.”
Is it possible these chemicals could wind up in the water?
Residents near the site of the derailed train wreckage in East Palestine have voiced concerns that chemicals released into the air could make their way into the area’s groundwater. This is technically possible, but much depends on the amount of chemicals released and how far the plume spreads.
According to the CDC, some vinyl chloride can dissolve in water, and it can migrate to groundwater or spread through the breakdown of other chemicals. Unlike some other chemicals, such as compounds known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, vinyl chloride is unlikely to build up in the plants or animals that people eat.
A day after the derailment, the Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency assured East Palestine residents that the region’s air and drinking water are safe.
“Due to the location of the derailment, it is improbable that substances from the derailment will impact the groundwater or drinking water wells in the area,” agency officials posted on Facebook. They said that it’s possible some of the chemicals “may have spilled into Sulphur Run,” a nearby stream the agency is sampling for any contamination.
What should people living near this accident know?
The authorities’ decision to burn vinyl chloride from the five tanker cars was rooted in concern that they could explode and send shrapnel and other debris into nearby neighborhoods. But Olson cautioned that burning a chemical could increase the radius of exposure.
“Authorities may be trying to reassure people. And they may have more data than I do — I hope they do — about what the exposure levels and wind patterns are, but if it were me, I would not stick around,” Olson said. “I would take my family with me and not return until I’m pretty confident the risk has subsided.”
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