On February 3, A Norfolk Southern train containing toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. In the days after, crews conducted “controlled releases” of the chemicals to avoid further damage, which meant burning them. Images of the ominous column of black, toxic smoke rising into the atmosphere went viral as commentators and observers raised the alarm on an apparent catastrophe for the environment and human health that was quickly emerging.
Residents were forced to evacuate the town, only recently returning to the area after being told it was now safe. Many residents reported a burning sensation and animal deaths including chickens and local fish in the wake of the disaster, which they attributed to chemical exposure. Initially, the only known chemical released in the disaster was vinyl chloride—a highly toxic, cancer-causing chemical—but a document released by Norfolk Southern revealed the freight also included chemicals such as isobutylene and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether.
People are worried about their health and the health of the land, and the incident has been widely compared to Chernobyl. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is striking a different tone so far.
According to EPA Great Lakes, there have been six staff and 16 contractors on the ground to assist with air monitoring actions. On February 13, the EPA posted an update to the website where it has been detailing its investigations of the incident, saying air monitoring both indoors and outdoors indicates everything safe so far.
"To date, no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride were identified for the completed screened homes. There are 181 homes that remain to be screened.” The website also explains that “network of air monitoring stations throughout the East Palestine area did not detect anything above the action level.” They also note that they will continue community air monitoring 24 hours a day.
It’s understandable the level of concern and continuous monitoring, given the hazardous contents of the train. Just what is going on here, and is there reason still for residents to worry?
“The trains were transporting vinyl chloride, a gas which is not only toxic by itself, but when burned can produce additional toxic gases, such as phosgene, hydrogen chloride, and a class of compounds called dioxins,” Daniel Westervelt, a research professor at the Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, wrote in an email to Motherboard. “Above a certain concentration threshold, each of these chemicals are thought to increase one's risk of developing cancer."
However, these gases may no longer be an issue, Westervelt said, hence the EPA’s statement.
“Some of the gases I mentioned do not last in the atmosphere for very long before dissipating, such that after 10 days or so, the monitoring EPA is doing would indeed show up as within the safe range,” Westervelt wrote.
That being said, Westervelt highlighted the need to still take precautions. Sampling air quality like the EPA has been might not tell the whole story.
“Given that the contamination area is large enough such that around-the-clock monitoring efforts can't cover everywhere, in my opinion caution would still be warranted.”
How the derailment will affect water quality is also still to be determined, and will be clearer in the coming days as water sample tests come back. The utility West Virginia American Water in Huntington, WV, has not detected any change in water from the Ohio River, it said in an update on Feb, 12. The utility will be installing a secondary intake on the Guyandotte River "should the need arise to switch to an alternate source water.”
While the East Palestine event is getting a lot of attention this week, it’s sadly nothing new in the United States.
“Any contaminant release like in East Palestine is a cause for concern, but unfortunately events like this are not all that unique,” Westervelt wrote. “Many people will have heard of or remember major oil spills like Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez. Fewer will know about things like Love Canal and the Donora Smog incident. This isn't the first train derailment that has resulted in a release of suspected toxic chemicals.”
Westervelt noted that a review of transportation safety and freight rail infrastructure could be warranted, among other changes to air monitoring policies.
“I would like to see additional air quality monitoring at the community level,” he added. “Much of the critical monitoring that has been done in the wake of the accident has been brought in only in response to the accident after it happened. It is important that communities be informed about the quality of their air that they are breathing not only during disasters.”