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One Month Later: the Ohio Train Derailment

Written by Yilin Xie '26

Edited by Lorenzo Mahoney '24

[Image by National Transportation Safety Board]


On February 3, 2023, about fifty cars of a train derailed in East Palestine, OH, a town near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Immediately, the crash caused a fire, affecting all of the derailed cars, including eleven cars that carried hazardous materials. Residents within one mile of the crash site were ordered to evacuate. Two days later, due to a drastic temperature change that raised the risk of an uncontrolled explosion, officials decided to perform a controlled release of some of the hazardous materials [1].


A significant concern from this accident, aside from train and railway safety, is these hazardous materials and their exposure effects in the surrounding area. They include vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethyl hexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, among others, in addition to products from their combustion, or burning [2]. A full list of the derailed cars’ content can be found here [3]; below are some highlights of major breached substances and derivatives and their properties.


  • Vinyl chloride is the most significant released chemical; five out of the eleven cars carrying hazardous materials were carrying vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride is flammable; toxic through swallowing, skin contact, and inhalation; a possible cancer-causing substance; and lethal to 50% of the tested zebrafish population at 210 mg/L after 96 hours of exposure [4].

  • The main combustion products of vinyl chloride are hydrogen chloride and phosgene. Hydrogen chloride is highly destructive to skin tissues, including inner respiratory tracks when inhaled as a gas [5]. Phosgene is also corrosive and destructive to tissue, combustible, and toxic [6].


  • Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether is flammable; toxic through swallowing or inhalation; and a skin and eye irritant [7].


  • Ethylhexyl acrylate is a skin and respiratory irritant. Although it is relatively stable in ambient conditions, it can release energy intensely when exposed to heat [8] [9].


  • Butyl acrylate is flammable; toxic through skin contact and inhalation, especially harmful to the respiratory system; and an irritant to the skin and eyes. It is also both a short-term and long-term hazard to aquatic systems [10].


  • Petroleum lube oil is flammable [11].


Despite the serious dangers described above, one vital factor in considering toxicity and pollution is concentration. It is difficult to measure how much of each substance entered the environment through air and through water, but current measurements show no critical presence of any of the substances.


Residents have expressed severe concerns about the effect of the derailment and the subsequent combustion. Amanda Breshears, who lived more than 10 miles away from East Palestine, reported that she experienced irritation and that her chickens died overnight after the vinyl chloride release [12]. She, as well as interviewed East Palestine residents, was greatly worried about the long-term impact of air quality on human health. For Breshears, her birds were like family members; likewise, Kathy Dyke of East Palestine has three grandchildren growing up near the derailment site [13]. The Ohio Department of Agriculture has released a statement assuring residents of their safety [13], but in issues of life, overcaution and scepticism are only normal.


Around mid-February, shortly after the derailment, officials recommended bottled waters for residents since the safety of water supply had not been confirmed [2]. Additionally, twenty days after the incident, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated that more than 43,000 marine animals (including fish, amphibians, crustaceans) have potentially died as a result of the derailment, though they did not report any deaths of land animals [14]. At the time of writing (March 05), however, environmental officials have concluded that the derailment did not affect public or private water systems [15].


While the current tests and analyses provide invaluable information for the present, it is still difficult to know the extent of pollution in the long term. Though it is not a satisfying answer, many environmental risks of uncertain magnitude take years to manifest their full effects: it is only with hindsight that we can measure their impacts. With each disaster, we look to the past for counsel, do the best according to our understanding in the present, and serve as knowledge for the future.

 

References

[1] NTSB Issues Investigative Update on Ohio Train Derailment [Internet]. [cited 2023 Mar 6]. Available from: https://www.ntsb.gov/news/press-releases/Pages/NR20230214.aspx

[2] McDaniel J, Phillips A. Drink bottled water, officials tell Ohio town hit by toxic train crash. Washington Post [Internet]. 2023 Feb 15 [cited 2023 Mar 6]; Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/02/14/ohio-train-derailment-toxic-chemicals/

[3] Data sheet https://response.epa.gov/sites/15933/files/TRAIN%2032N%20-%20EAST%20PALESTINE%20-%20derail%20list%20Norfolk%20Southern%20document.pdf

[4] Vinyl chloride 500976 (sigmaaldrich.com)

[5] HCl 295426 (sigmaaldrich.com)

[6] Phosgene | The Merck Index Online [Internet]. [cited 2023 Mar 6]. Available from: https://www-rsc-org.revproxy.brown.edu/Merck-Index/monograph/m8717/phosgene?q=authorize

[7] Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether 8.01554 (sigmaaldrich.com)

[8] PubChem. 2-Ethylhexyl acrylate [Internet]. [cited 2023 Mar 6]. Available from: https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/7636

[9] Humans IWG on the E of CR to. 2-Ethylhexyl Acrylate [Internet]. Some Industrial Chemicals. International Agency for Research on Cancer; 1994 [cited 2023 Mar 6]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507491/

[10] Butyl acrylate 06958 (sigmaaldrich.com)

[11] PETROLEUM LUBRICATING OIL | CAMEO Chemicals | NOAA [Internet]. [cited 2023 Mar 6]. Available from: https://cameochemicals.noaa.gov/chemical/12190

[12] North Lima woman finds chickens dead Tuesday, questions chemical release from train [Internet]. WKBN.com. 2023 [cited 2023 Mar 6]. Available from: https://www.wkbn.com/news/local-news/east-palestine-train-derailment/north-lima-woman-finds-chickens-dead-tuesday-questions-chemical-release-from-train/

[13] EPA chief at train derailment site: ‘Trust the government’ [Internet]. AP NEWS. 2023 [cited 2023 Mar 6]. Available from: https://apnews.com/article/politics-us-environmental-protection-agency-ohio-pennsylvania-business-a686a906bc165d890097646b77412b1d

[14] Grandoni D, Koh J. More than 43,000 aquatic animals are dead near Ohio train derailment. Washington Post [Internet]. 2023 Feb 24 [cited 2023 Mar 6]; Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/02/23/ohio-train-derailment-animals-deaths/

[15] Latest Ohio derailment poses no public risk, officials say [Internet]. AP NEWS. 2023 [cited 2023 Mar 6]. Available from: https://apnews.com/article/norfolk-southern-springfield-train-derailment-1b08c84e0788082dd24a4f4ca447f459



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