On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, because of an overheating wheel bearing that created an explosion risk forcing nearby residents to evacuate their homes. Five days after the derailment, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided to conduct a controlled release of chemicals and lifted the evacuation orders — but the long term impacts of the crash remain unknown.
The crash resulted in the resident exposure to vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene, butyl acrylate and more.
Rachel Li (CAS ’24), a central Ohio native, said locals are concerned about their safety in the aftermath of the crash.
“Even though tests have been done to make sure the air and water meets certain federal and state standards of safety, the fact that these numbers for potential toxins even have to be gauged points to a situation that residents in East Palestine shouldn’t have had to face in the first place,” Li told The Hoya.
Some scientists are also concerned that despite the EPA’s assurance of safety, residents are still being exposed to hazardous materials, as the full cleanup process will potentially take years, according to Grid News. In a letter to the Norfolk Southern Railway Company, the EPA made public the materials found at the crash site and tried to reassure residents by stating actions the EPA had taken in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, from releasing some chemicals to sampling air and water within a mile of the derailment.
According to Jesse Meiller, an environmental science professor and environmental toxicologist at Georgetown, varying amounts of the materials being transported on the train were detected in nearby groundwater and soil, meaning anyone using local water could be affected.
“Already there have been massive fish kills (estimates keep rising but over 38,000 so far for fish) as well as other organisms, such as the endangered hellbender salamander, who have died due to toxic exposures. Residents nearby have reported deaths of chickens, pets, and wild foxes. Humans have experienced headaches and dizziness, both possibly due to exposure to VC.” Miller said in an email to The Hoya.
Videos circulating on social media show visible chemical residue in water bodies near East Palestine paired with names of the chemicals found at the site, stirring controversy over whether the contaminants could harm residents.
One of the chemicals listed in the EPA’s letter on the derailment was a carcinogen called vinyl chloride (VC). The title “carcinogen” means a substance has the potential to cause cancer, but doesn’t necessarily mean it is guaranteed to cause cancer. For example, a carcinogen can be linked to cancer when ingested, but have no proven link to cancer when inhaled.
Only prolonged exposure in close proximity to VC, most commonly seen in workers who are exposed to the chemical over several years, is linked to cancer, liver damage, kidney damage, nerve damage, and immune disorders, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a co-medical director and medical toxicologist at the National Capital Poison Center, said dangers related to VC are low for those living near the crash site, as they did not breathe it in close proximity or for extended periods of time.
“It’s unlikely that such an exposure will result in cancer development due to the physical properties of the chemical, the relatively short-term nature of the exposure, and the chemical’s ability to break down quickly when exposed to air and water, which further limits the extent of exposure,” Johnson-Arbor said in an interview with The Hoya.
According to the EPA’s letter, “five rail car tankers of vinyl chloride were intentionally breached; the vinyl chloride was diverted to an excavated trench and then burned off.”
In other words, the chemicals that were in cars that had not leaked were released to prevent an explosion, and vinyl chloride was poured into a trough and burned to contain its spread. This decision was met with much controversy from residents following its announcement, as the substances that are produced when vinyl chloride is burned can pose serious health risks.
“In the air, vinyl chloride breaks down in a few days on its own, but can result in exposure to hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde,” Meiller said. “When burned, VC can release dioxins, which are chlorinated organic chemicals and most are carcinogenic, endocrine disruptors, and/or are reproductive toxicants.”
Sarah Stoll, a Georgetown professor and researcher in the department of chemistry, said the materials found at the site, including VC, two acrylates called ethylhexyl acrylate and butyl acrylate, as well as phosgene, which has historically been used as a chemical weapon, are treated with caution in a laboratory setting for a reason.
“Vinyl chloride and the two acrylates are highly flammable and toxic to breathe, and toxic to the skin,” Stoll said.
However, a 2002 study shows that water with VC, which the train had been carrying, can be unsafe for consumption even after it is extracted from groundwater.
“We concluded that the contaminated groundwater was still unsafe for use even after the contaminated site underwent remediation by extraction and treatment in 1997.”
“The nearby residents who had private wells were told to use bottled water instead,” Meiller said in an interview with The Hoya.
The office of Mike DeWine, the governor of Ohio, has since released a statement saying that residents have no reason to avoid drinking local water.
“New water testing results have been returned to the Ohio EPA. These results show no detection of contaminants in raw water from the five wells that feed into East Palestine’s municipal water system,” the statement reads.
The EPA responded to public outcry, announcing that they would require Norfolk Southern to sample soil for dioxins, a toxic compound, in the soil in East Palestine until no trace could be identified in a March 2 press release. Should the sampling result in unsafe levels of certain chemicals, the public will be notified immediately.
“To address concerns from residents about the potential release of dioxins resulting from the derailment, EPA will continue to sample for indicator chemicals and will also require Norfolk Southern to begin sampling directly for dioxins. If dioxins are found in the area including East Palestine, EPA will share the information with the public, determine whether the level of contaminants found poses any unacceptable risk to human health and the environment, and direct the immediate cleanup of the area in coordination with Ohio EPA, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and other partners,” according to the release.
Social caption: The health and environmental impacts of the East Palestine train derailment and its aftermath are discussed by experts in fields of toxicology and chemistry.