After the Feb. 3 derailment of an Atlanta-based Norfolk Southern train, authorities slowly released the vinyl chloride from five train cars and set it on fire to get rid of the highly flammable, toxic chemicals. The resulting explosion created a huge dark plume of smoke, and released industrial compounds hydrogen chloride and phosgene into the air.
The hydrogen chloride and phosgene released after burning are highly toxic, said Terry Oroszi, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Wright State, and director of the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense Program. In fact, phosgene was a chemical agent used in World War I.
In addition to vinyl chloride, at least three other substances — butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl — were released into the air, soil or water, according to a letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency putting Norfolk Southern Railway Company on notice about its potential liability for cleanup costs.
The EPA is also monitoring levels of carbon monoxide, oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, and hydrogen chloride in the air and water, according to the agency’s response report.
What does vinyl chloride exposure do to humans?
Exposure to vinyl chloride can cause irritation and burns to the skin and eyes, and repeated exposure can damage skin, bones, and blood vessels in the hands, said Kelley Williams, professor of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense at Wright State.
Inhaling the chemical can cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath leading to headaches, dizziness, and passing out. Vinyl chloride has also been shown to affect reproductive systems, damaging sperm cells in men and causing miscarriages in women.
In the long term, more severe exposure to vinyl chloride can cause several types of cancers, including angiosarcoma of the liver (ASL), hepatocellular carcinoma, and a potential for brain tumors.
Extensive testing of the air and water around East Palestine has been “reassuring,” said Ohio Department of Health Director Bruce Vanderhoff, adding that federal and Ohio environmental agencies still haven’t seen levels of toxic chemicals above the level of concern.
Those levels of concern only allow for an infinitesimal amount of these chemicals in the air and water. The maximum allowable concentration of vinyl chloride in public drinking water is two parts per billion, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a permissible exposure limit to vinyl chloride of 5 parts per million (ppm) for no more than 15 minutes, or 0.5 ppm averaged out over an 8-hour workday.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, nearby rivers, streams, and soil were infiltrated by the toxins, killing 3,500 fish, per the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Sulphur Run creek in East Palestine was dammed early on after the crash, and clean water routed around the section of the stream, but the stream itself remains “very contaminated and should be avoided,” Gov. Mike DeWine said in a Feb. 18 press conference.
However, videos circulated online, including one of U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, show a section of Leslie Run creek, which flows from Sulphur Run, is still contaminated.
A plume of contaminants including butyl acrylate has flowed down the Ohio River, but the amounts so far don’t pose a risk for cities that rely on the river for its drinking water, according to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and outside experts.
Maps of the Ohio River Basin — a region of 204,000 square miles across parts of 14 states — circulated on the internet, claiming erroneously that drinking water for communities along the entire Ohio River would be undrinkable. Many counties in the map get their drinking water from other sources, and communities that do get their water from the river have so far found no traces of the involved chemicals.
Greater Cincinnati Water Works reported Monday there were no detectable chemicals in the Ohio River intakes. The intakes were closed at 2 a.m. Sunday morning “out of an abundance of caution,” GCWW said.
Though it is unlikely that contamination from this incident reached the potable water supply for families in the area, East Palestinians who are on well-supplied water should still get those wells tested, Wright State’s Williams said.
“There may be no safe level of exposure to a carcinogen, so all contact should be reduced to the lowest possible level,” Williams said.
Since the derailment, East Palestine residents have complained about headaches and irritated eyes and finding their cars and lawns covered in soot. The column of smoke left after the explosion producing hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide, and phosgene left residents and others concerned about whether the air in East Palestine is safe to breathe.
As of the evening of Feb. 16, the US EPA has assisted with air monitoring of more than 500 homes. None of them had detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride above levels of concern.
Vinyl chloride is heavier, or more dense, than air and may travel a considerable distance along the ground, Oroszi, the Wright State professor, said. The furthest reach of the smoke plume depends largely on the strength and direction of the wind and the amount of smoke, but it could potentially spread to a distance of more than 100 miles.
However, Oroszi said, it’s difficult to make an assessment of whether or not East Palestine and communities downwind of the smoke are safe without more information. Part of that depends on whether or not all the vinyl chloride burned.
“If uncombusted chemicals are still present or absorbed into surrounding soil, some degree of hazard likely remains,” she said.
The federal and state response to the crash has faced substantial backlash from the public. Reports of people and animals getting sick from the explosion persist, despite federal and state EPA reports that air and water testing has found nothing out of the ordinary.
On whether or not the EPA is missing something, Williams said, it depends on the kind of testing they’re doing.
“If they are looking for a single compound or a specific breakdown products of vinyl chloride, for example, there is a greater chance for missing potential hazards,” he said. “The scenario is unlikely, however, because it would require that hazardous chemicals already be in the soil.”
Scientists typically use technology like gas chromatograph mass spectrometry (GC/MS) for tests like these, Williams said, which references a library of hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds with great specificity.
“If current testing is using this technology, it is highly unlikely that there are undetected threats to the community,” he added.