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Safety concerns after the Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio

Safety concerns after the Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio

On Friday, February 3, 2023, about 50 freight cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Unfortunately, the freight company Norfolk Southern did not release the full manifest of what was in the derailed cars to the public until about two weeks later.  It was first stated that only ten of these cars contained hazardous materials.  Five of those cars started leaking vinyl chloride, a gas which is used to make PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a hard plastic that composes many consumer products such as lawn chairs and water piping.  Vinyl chloride exposure increases risk of certain cancers, including liver cancer. According to the New Jersey Department of Health, some of the acute health effects of inhaling vinyl chloride are irritation of the nose, throat and lungs causing coughing, wheezing and/or shortness of breath.  It can cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, weakness and confusion. Higher levels can cause lightheadedness and passing out.  With chronic exposure, vinyl chloride is a carcinogen in humans. It has been shown to cause liver, brain, lung, and other types of cancer, as well as reproductive harm.


Other chemicals initially reported were:

  • Butyl acrylate, a liquid at normal atmospheric conditions, but it evaporates quickly.  It’s used to make plastics and paints.  Butyl Acrylate is listed as a “serious” health and flammability hazard by the New Jersey Department of Health.  Inhaling Butyl Acrylate can irritate the nose, throat and lungs causing coughing, wheezing and/or shortness of breath.  Exposure to Butyl Acrylate can cause headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting.
  • A “small amount of non-hazardous lube oil”.

According to news headlines of February 13, additional chemicals contained in the train cars include:

  • Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether (EGBE) is a colorless liquid with a mild odor, is used as a solvent for paints and enamels, as well as in cleaning products.  It’s a carcinogen and can immediately irritate the nose and throat to cause coughing, wheezing, nausea, vomiting, diahhrea, abdominal pain, headaches, dizziness, confusion and passing out (Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet).
  • Ethyhexyl acrylate is a clear colorless liquid with a pleasant odor, whose vapors are heavier than air.  It’s used in the making of paints and plastics.  It can cause severe skin and eye irritation on contact and respiratory irritation if concentrated vapors are inhaled.
  • Isobutylene is usually transported as a colorless liquid under pressure, which becomes a gas when depressurized.  It’s highly flammable and used in the production of aviation gasoline, paints and coatings, packagings and plastics.  It can cause headache, dizziness, lightheadedness and fatigue when breathed in, as well as irritating the eyes, nose and throat. (Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet)

According to a Washington Post article of February 18, other chemicals include:

  • Polyethylene, a common plastic, is considered to be of low toxicity by the Environmental Working Group.
  • Dipropylene glycol, used in some skin care products, has low toxicity. (Environmental Working Group)
  • Propylene glycol, a food additive and skin care ingredient, has moderate allergenic potential.  (Environmental Working Group)
  • Polyvinyl (PVC), a common plastic, may contain phthalates (an endocrine and reproductive toxin), and can produce dioxin and hydrogen chloride if it's burned.
  • Diethylene glycol (DEG) is a clear, colorless, practically odorless, viscous, hygroscopic liquid with a sweet taste. It’s used in a wide range of industrial products but has also been involved in a number of prominent mass poisonings spanning back to 1937. (scientific review), causing renal (kidney) failure, neurological disorders, and/or death.
  • Benzene, a major ingredient in gasoline, is used to make many other industrial products, detergents, drugs and pesticides.  It’s a known carcinogen that can cause death at high levels of inhalation (10,000-20,000 ppm), and headaches, dizziness and drowsiness with only short-term inhalation.  Inhalation over extended periods or in high concentration can cause organ damage, especially to bone marrow and blood (Virginia Department of Health).

In order to mitigate explosion risk, crews drained and ignited the vinyl chloride on Monday February 6, causing a dark plume of smoke.  Unfortunately, the smoke contains phosgene and hydrogen chloride, which are both irritants that can cause adverse effects at very low concentrations.  Here is what we know about these chemicals:

Phosgene, a product of the burning vinyl chloride, can occasionally poison workers in the plastics and chemical industries.  According to an academic review of 10 cases of phosgene exposure, “Phosgene inhalation may cause initially symptoms of respiratory tract irritation, patients feel fine thereafter, and then die of choking a day later because of build up of fluid in the lungs (delayed onset non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema). Phosgene exposure is associated with significant morbidity and mortality.”  The exposure limits are also very low for this chemical: 0.1 ppm (part per million) averaged over a 10-hour workshift and 0.2 ppm, not to be exceeded during any 15 minute work period, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).  (Phosgene Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet)

Hydrogen Chloride, another of the products of burning vinyl chloride, is synonymous with Muriatic Acid and Hydrochloric Acid.  It’s a colorless gas with a very pungent odor, used to make other chemicals, or used in making cleaning products.  Very corrosive, it’s an irritant to the respiratory system and can cause severe burns to the skin, eyes and lungs.  Hydrogen Chloride is corrosive to steel and has an explosive reaction to some other substances. (Hydrogen Chloride Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet)

Since vinyl chloride and some other chemicals are heavier than air at ambient temperatures, officials have been testing areas near the ground and the basements of residents, to be sure that they are safe to return to their homes.  However, until all of the chemicals are removed from the site, there is the possibility of further escape of chemical gasses and liquids into the air, ground and water.  It’s been confirmed that some chemicals reached the Ohio River, so that at least one water supply company had to make provisions to obtain a different source of water from another river.  There have been reports of dead animals in the area such as chickens, dogs, foxes, and fish. 

There is a very real concern about soil and water contamination, because the vinyl chloride was first drained from five of the cars to an excavated trench and then burned.  This was not a lined trench, so the vinyl chloride contaminated the soil, where it can permeate and move into waterways with snow and rain.   According to the EPA’s letter to Norfolk Southern, chemicals were also seen entering storm drains.  The soil of the disposal trench was not excavated for disposal following the burning; in fact the repaired train line was quickly built over part of the trench/burn site.  Because vinyl chloride is a carcinogen, there’s likely to be lasting adverse effects from the quick disposal and cover-over.  

In addition, chemicals released from burning the vinyl chloride are potentially toxic.  Among them, dioxins can cause developmental problems in children, lead to reproductive and infertility problems in adults, result in miscarriages, damage the immune system, and interfere with hormones.  Dioxins can bind to an intracellular protein known as the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR). When that happens, the AhR can alter the expression, or function, of certain genes. The resulting cellular imbalance leads to a disruption in normal cell function and ultimately adverse health effects. (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences)  Unfortunately, dioxins can persist for decades in soil and contaminate plants and animals, where they are stored in the fat reserves of the animals which graze on or contact the soil.  On Thursday, March 2, the EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to begin testing for dioxins in the area surrounding the derailment.

Many residents returning to their homes have requested air and well water testing, which is being conducted by the EPA.  Detection of these gasses and chemicals in many cases requires specialized testing equipment that has been calibrated to sense their presence, such as this meter. According to this fact sheet from the Illinois Department of Public Health, showering, bathing or cooking with water contaminated with vinyl chloride can release it into the air, where you can breathe it. Drinking contaminated water can also expose you to vinyl chloride; people can taste it starting at about 3400 parts per billion (ppb), however, the EPA recommends avoiding cooking or bathing with water that contains over 2 ppb.  The sheet advises that water can be safely filtered using carbon filters, however with the low safety level (2 ppb) and much higher sensory detection level (3400 ppb), there is no way to know if water has been safely filtered unless it’s tested.  Testing by private labs are one way to be sure that water is safe, but testing water continually, and purchasing bottled water, can come at significant cost to the homeowners.

Photo by Craig Marolf on Unsplash