The short answer to this is pretty simple: It is extremely unlikely—but we’ll take a look here at some of the facts and fallacies being discussed concerning the Ohio train derailment earlier this month.
On February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern Corporation-owned train transporting hazardous substances from Pennsylvania to Illinois partially derailed and caught on fire in East Palestine, Ohio. As many as 2,000 residents residing within one mile of the crash were forced to evacuate their homes. This was due to the chemical fire and the possibility of explosion as the fire among the 50 derailed train cars threatened to spread to the remaining 100 cars on the tracks. Authorities began to release the remaining chemicals to prevent such an eruption from happening.
Releasing the chemicals was done by drilling holes in the train cars and letting the chemicals spill out into pits, which were then set on fire, sending clouds of black smoke into the air. In the days after the crash, crews began removing the contaminated soil around the site up to seven feet deep to reduce long-term effects. This clean-up is ongoing.
What Chemicals Were Involved?
While the train manifest lists a number of chemicals that burned or were released by officials, these five are the most concerning to public health.
Vinyl chloride is an organic compound that is used primarily to produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a widely used plastic. PVC is used to manufacture a variety of products, including pipes, wire and cable coatings, automotive parts, and building materials. However, vinyl chloride is a toxic and potentially carcinogenic substance. Acute effects include dizziness, headache, drowsiness, and in severe cases, unconsciousness. Long-term exposure to vinyl chloride has been associated with an increased risk of developing liver cancer, as well as a number of non-cancerous health effects sumanyud's phenomenon, circulatory system problems, and skin lesions.
Butyl acrylate is a chemical compound to create various polymers and resins. It is commonly used in the production of adhesives, coatings, sealants, and emulsions. It is also used in the manufacturing of latex paints and other water-based coatings. The dangers of exposure to butyl acrylate depend on the level and duration of exposure. Inhaling or ingesting large amounts of butyl acrylate can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Long-term exposure to butyl acrylate can cause respiratory problems, such as asthma, and may increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer
Ethylhexyl acrylate is a chemical compound used in the production of plastics and coatings. It is used in the synthesis of polymers and copolymers that provide improved adhesion and water resistance. Exposure to Ethylhexyl acrylate can be dangerous if inhaled or if it comes into contact with the skin or eyes. It may cause irritation, sensitization, or allergic reactions in some individuals. Prolonged or repeated exposure to the chemical may lead to respiratory problems, lung damage, and other health issues. Ethylhexyl acrylate is also classified as a potential carcinogen, and long-term exposure to the chemical may increase the risk of developing cancer.
Isobutylene is a colorless and flammable gas used in the production of synthetic rubber and other chemical products. It is also used as a fuel additive to improve the octane rating of gasoline. Isobutylene can cause eye and respiratory irritation, as well as headaches, dizziness, and nausea when inhaled in high concentrations. Prolonged exposure can lead to serious health problems such as lung damage, central nervous system depression, and even death in extreme cases.
Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether
Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether is commonly used as a solvent in various industries, including paint, varnish, and ink manufacturing. It is also used as a cleaning agent and in the production of some personal care products. Exposure to ethylene glycol monobutyl ether can cause skin and eye irritation, and inhaling the fumes can lead to respiratory problems. Prolonged exposure to high concentrations may cause liver and kidney damage, as well as damage to the reproductive system. Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether has also been classified as a potential carcinogen by some organizations.
Chemicals in the Waterways
After the derailment, booms were placed in affected waterways to catch chemicals that spilled into them but this is not 100% effective. According to the division chief of surface water with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Tiffany Kavalec, none of the vinyl chloride has been found in down-gradient waterways near the crash site.
However, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director, Mary Mertz, estimates that around 3,500 fish from a dozen different species were killed by spillage leaking into local waterways. Kavalec attributes this to some of the butyl acrylate that did make its way out to the Ohio River but says it would have been quickly diluted by the larger body of water.
Kavalec describes the chemical as moving in a “contaminant plume” that is progressing very slowly and being tracked by experts in order to close off any drinking water intakes so that the plume passes by without entering public water supplies. This is the reason you will see reports of various waterworks closing off access to the Ohio River until this plume is deemed no longer a threat.
According to Kavalec, officials are fairly certain that the small level of contamination in the river is not reaching people in the communities through which it passes. Despite this statement of consumer safety, authorities are still recommending that people in the areas that could be affected drink bottled water and test private wells for any contamination. There is no clear information on how much of the chemical spillage may have gone into storm drains, and streams or settled into the sediment of adjacent waterways. The true effects of the contamination may not be known for years to come.
Alabama Water Supplies
However, for residents in Alabama who may be concerned about contaminants coming in from the Ohio River, experts say that there is no reason to believe there is any room for worry. The distorted maps of affected waterways circulating on social media do not accurately reflect the situation. Not only do many of the areas marked as potential contamination areas not feed from the Ohio River, but the plume of contaminants was already well diluted before even reaching Kentucky.
So, while this is undoubtedly an environmental disaster for the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, and some areas adjacent to the cleanup process, those located as far south as Alabama are unlikely to see any effects from the chemical spillage at all. Nonetheless, testing is ongoing and well-known activist Erin Brockovich has become involved to advocate for affected residents. It is quite certain that if any alarms are to be raised beyond the East Palestine area, she will make sure they are well known.
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