East Palestine Train Derailment Sparks Evacuation and Controversy
On February 3, a train operated by Norfolk Southern, a rail corporation based in Atlanta, derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Ten of the fifty derailed cars were carrying hazardous chemicals, including vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate. On Sunday evening, February 5, residents of the small town were urged by authorities to evacuate due to the risk of an explosion. On the next day, workers implemented a “controlled release” of the substances, resulting in a large cloud of black smoke.
Vinyl chloride is a colorless gas used to make polyvinyl chloride, the hard plastic resin found in many consumer products. When burned, it gives off hydrogen chloride and the toxic gas phosphene, which was used as a weapon during World War I. Exposure to vinyl chloride is associated with an increased risk of a rare form of liver cancer as well as brain and lung cancers.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has identified the rail car that initiated the derailment and is examining the locomotive event recorder. The NTSB also said video showed an overheated wheel bearing moments before the derailment. Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro sent a letter to Norfolk Southern Corporation CEO Alan Shaw expressing serious concerns regarding the company’s management of the incident.
Following the controlled burn of chemicals, residents say foxes, chickens, and other domesticated animals have died, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has counted roughly 3,500 dead fish in four nearby waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency has tested the municipal water supply and indoor air and said it has not detected vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride in the nearly 400 homes it has screened.
It is still unclear what risks the chemicals may pose to humans, as the effects largely depend on the concentration and exposure. Residents have reported experiencing headaches and nausea since returning home after the evacuation. The local evacuation was lifted last Wednesday, but the EPA is continuing to monitor the air throughout East Palestine.
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