Train Derailment in Ohio: How Dangerous Are Spilled Chemicals?

Train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, resulted in the spill of toxic substances, some of which are known to cause cancer. While officials say that no concerning levels of these chemicals have been detected, residents report typical exposure symptoms.

The Norfolk Southern train comprising roughly 150 rail cars, about 20 of which were carrying hazardous materials, derailed on Friday night.

Governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania ordered an immediate evacuation in a one-mile area surrounding East Palestine, with Ohio's Mike DeWine calling this "a matter of life and death."

In a letter to Norfolk Southern, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) noted that cars containing vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether are known to have been and continue to be released to the air, surface soils, and surface waters.

Materials were detected in samples from Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, North Fork Little Beaver Creek, Little Beaver Creek, and the Ohio River.

A chemical linked to several cancers

Vinyl chloride is the chemical that worries the investigators the most, according to Chief Keith A. Drabick of the East Palestine Fire Department.

Even though the derailment did not damage the cars carrying vinyl chloride, crews burned their contents to prevent a major explosion, creating a toxic smoke plume above East Palestine.

This colorless and highly flammable gas is used to produce polyvinyl chloride, a hard plastic resin used to make a variety of plastic products.

Short-term exposure to vinyl chloride can cause dizziness, drowsiness, loss of coordination, visual and auditory abnormalities, disorientation, nausea, headache, and burning or tingling of the extremities, according to the CDC.

The chemical is considered to be carcinogenic, as the long-term exposure has been linked to an increased risk of liver, brain, and lung cancers, as well as lymphoma and leukemia.

Butyl acrylate is another chemical released during the train derailment accident in East Palestine. Acute exposure to butyl acrylate vapor can cause:

  • Redness, tearing, irritation of the eyes, runny nose
  • Scratchy throat, difficulty breathing
  • Redness and cracking of the skin

Repeated skin contact with butyl acrylate can lead to skin redness, swelling, itching, and oozing in the affected areas. According to the CDC, "nervous system and behavioral effects are also possible."

Ethylhexyl acrylate can irritate the skin, eyes, and throat. When ingested, the chemical may cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. There is no evidence on its carcinogenic effects following oral or inhalation exposure.

Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, another chemical spilled during the train derailment accident, can cause coughing, dizziness, drowsiness, headache, nausea, and weakness. The substance is also known to have effects on the central nervous system, blood, kidneys, and liver.

Mounting concern in East Palestine

The EPA said Sunday that it had not detected any "levels of concern" of hazardous substances in East Palestine and continued air monitoring in the area.

Media reports, however, describe people experiencing headaches, nausea, and burning sensation in their eyes, as well as animals falling ill, for example, foxes dealing with stomach issues or acting lethargic.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated that 3,500 small fish across 7½ miles of streams died due to the chemical spill.

Norfolk Southern announced more than $1 million in assistance to families to cover costs related to the evacuation and, in coordination with health agencies, conducted in-home air tests.

Meanwhile, experts warn that devastating consequences of the accident will be felt years later.

Eric Feigl-Ding, a public health scientist, tweeted: "The problem is that exposure and cancer onset takes years — long after the initial exposure to the toxic chemicals happened. By then, the original politicians and insurance companies are long gone. But the health risks persist."


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