Train Derailment in East Palestine Releases Carcinogens into Environment

Aftermath of the derailment in East Palestine, OH. The spill of toxic chemicals resulted in the contamination of soil and air in the local environment. Image courtesy of USA Today.
Izzie Corley, Contributing Writer

When a one-and-a-half-mile long train derailed along a stretch of railway in East Palestine, OH, on Feb. 3, at least 50 cars were derailed or damaged. However, the crash itself was not the sole concern of the nearly 5,000 residents of East Palestine. Norfolk Southern, the railroad company responsible for this incident, carried out a controlled burn of the site, in order to prevent volatile cars from creating a catastrophic explosion. The heavy black plume of smoke this emitted created alarm.

According to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board, the current theory on what caused this accident is a mechanical issue with one car’s wheels. There are over 1,000 train derailments every year, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis. In a company presentation from 2022, Norfolk Southern reported an increased rate of accidents on their rails over the last four years. College of Wooster professor and environmental sociologist Dr. Matthew Mariola spoke to The Voice about potential causes for this pattern. He claims that cost-cutting measures “raise the risk and consequences of [disasters]” like the ones that Norfolk Southern are reporting. He highlights the lack of regulation forcing railroads to equip large trains with safer, modern “electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.”

While there were no fatalities, the potential danger of this incident comes from the 11 derailed cars that were carrying hazardous substances. These include multiple known or suspected carcinogens, such as vinyl chloride, ethylhexyl acrylate and benzene. The presence of isobutylene, butyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether were also cause for concern.

The chemicals released pose a threat to the liver, lungs, immune system and central nervous system. News sources such as NPR have interviewed East Palestine residents who have experienced dizziness and headaches, as well as complaints of a foul metallic odor in the air. The EPA’s On-Scene Coordinator report explains that “the byproducts of the controlled burn have a low odor threshold,” which means they are detectable by scent even in safe-to-inhale concentrations.

One of the substances that has been receiving specific attention from the public is vinyl chloride. It can break down into hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde when dispersed into the atmosphere, and into phosgene when burned, according to the public health statement and toxicology report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Additionally, it is known for causing an increased risk of a rare liver cancer known as hepatic angiosarcoma, and can damage the liver in multiple ways through multiple forms of exposure, including inhalation and water pollution.

These problems are primarily associated with high levels of ingestion, and most Americans are not exposed to significant quantities of vinyl chloride, unless they work with the substance or the PVC plastic it is used to make, or live near a factory that does (DHHS). However, the Department document explains that research constraints make it difficult to establish a precise threshold for how much vinyl chloride exposure is safe on a long-term basis.

Jameson Sprankle ’24, a chemistry and geology double major who worked with Wooster’s Dr. Jennifer Faust of the chemistry department on research involving the movement and distribution of pollutants in the atmosphere, commented on the relative risk this accident poses. He explains that the air in the immediate vicinity of East Palestine will not be imperiled forever, and areas far enough away or upwind are in little danger. “Turbulence and diffusion allowed the gas to spread [in all directions] a bit,” he said, “but the plume itself was generally following the wind,” and became less concentrated once in the atmosphere. From a “Wooster-centric” standpoint, Sprankle is no more concerned about the plume in East Palestine than the presence of manufacturing sites that are constantly emitting pollution in the general Ohio area, perhaps even less concerned because Wooster is upwind of East Palestine.

Sprankle did add, however, that if he were living in East Palestine, he personally “wouldn’t be content with the data that the EPA has put out regarding their methodology” of monitoring air and water quality in the village. “While [the EPA] claimed that the area was clean shortly after the controlled burn had completed, the public was not given readily available information on the sensitivity of their methods or even the full array of chemicals that the EPA was testing for aside from vinyl chloride and phosgene.” The On-Scene Coordinator report maintains that no dangerous levels of vinyl chloride have been found in indoor air or water.

The exact extent to which the derailment will imperil human life is not perfectly clear. Based on the research that does exist, and the limitations thereof, it may be difficult to determine. One thing that is easier to determine is that, like Professor Mariola argues, there were risk factors involved that could have been prevented, and can be changed for the future.

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