Why the train wreck in Ohio is such a major public health disaster

Despite reassurances from public officials, concerns linger about a train derailment that released toxic chemicals

By Troy Farah

Science & Health Editor

Published February 15, 2023 5:45PM (EST)

Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, U.S., February 6, 2023 in this screengrab obtained from a handout video released by the NTSB. (National Transportation Safety Board/WikiCommons)
Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, U.S., February 6, 2023 in this screengrab obtained from a handout video released by the NTSB. (National Transportation Safety Board/WikiCommons)

A massive environmental disaster has sent social media into a tailspin for days, following a train derailment in Ohio that leeched toxic chemicals into the ground, water and air.

On Feb. 3, a train of about 150 freight cars — many carrying several loads of hazardous materials — crashed and exploded in the town of East Palestine, Ohio. The tangled knot of boxcars operated by Norfolk Southern Railway shot out flames reaching 100 feet and sent a massive plume of coal-black smog into the air that could be seen for miles. Luckily, no direct injuries or deaths were reported. Five days later, crews ignited a controlled burn of the toxic chemicals in order to prevent a much bigger explosion, but the situation appears to be worsening.

The local motto for East Palestine, which has a population just shy of 5,000 people, is apparently "The Place You Want To Be," but that sentiment may be less popular right now. Residents and local news agencies have posted viral videos of streams and creeks cluttered with dead fish and frogs, as well as images of the sky darkened with black smoke. Reports have also surfaced that fumes sickened and even killed pets.

Many are drawing comparisons to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which turned Pripyat, a city of roughly 50,000 people, into a ghost town. "We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open," Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist, told WKBN.

On Feb. 6, Gov. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Gov. Josh Shapiro, D-Penn., ordered an immediate evacuation in a one-mile by two-mile area surrounding East Palestine, which includes parts of both Ohio and Pennsylvania. Five of the rail cars containing vinyl chloride, a toxic gas, had become unstable, threatening the risk of an explosion that would blast shrapnel and toxic fumes a mile in every direction, according to an analysis by the Ohio National Guard and U.S. Department of Defense.

A controlled burn was seen as the best alternative, but anyone who directly breathed in the smog would be risking their lives.

"Based on current weather patterns and the expected flow of the smoke and fumes, anyone who remains in the red affected area is facing grave danger of death," DeWine's office warned in a press release. "Anyone who remains in the yellow impacted area is at a high risk of severe injury, including skin burns and serious lung damage."

A few days later, on Feb. 8, state officials told residents that they could "safely" return home, and the air was safe to breathe. However, they encouraged residents not to drink well water.

"Air quality samples in the area of the wreckage and in nearby residential neighborhoods have consistently showed readings at points below safety screening levels for contaminants of concern," DeWine's office said in a press release. "Based on this information, state and local health officials determined that it is now safe for community members to return to their residences."

"If it's safe and habitable, then why does it hurt? Why does it hurt me to breathe?"

But some locals are distrustful of this advice, concerned by lingering odors of chlorine that are reportedly causing some individuals to experience headaches. "If it's safe and habitable, then why does it hurt?" Nathen Velez, a resident of East Palestine, said to CNN. "Why does it hurt me to breathe?"

"This is why people don't trust government," environmental activist Erin Brockovich tweeted on Feb. 13. "You cannot tell people that there has been and continues to be hazardous pollutants contaminating the environment while at the same time saying 'all is well.' People aren't stupid."

As more details emerge, the gravity of the situation only seems to worsen. In a letter sent to Norfolk Southern Railway on Feb. 11, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that in addition to vinyl chloride, four additional toxic chemicals were on board the train: ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, butyl acrylate and isobutylene.

While these chemical names may sound like gibberish to most people, experts believe these substances pose critical health risks. Isobutylene, for example, is a flammable gas used to make airtight polymers such as bottle stoppers, O-rings or window seals. If inhaled, isobutylene irritates the lungs; it can also impact the heart and central nervous system.

Then there's ethylhexyl acrylate, a chemical used in paint binding and stain resistors. Inhalation or skin contact with the liquid can cause respiratory tract irritation and irritate the eyes and skin. Butyl acrylate is a colorless liquid with a sharp odor used in paints, caulks, sealants and adhesives. It can trigger difficulties breathing and irritation of the eyes and skin. On Wednesday, the Ohio city of Steubenville detected butyl acrylate in its water intake, though officials said it would be removed from the river using powder activated carbon.

Finally, there's ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, sometimes known as 2-butoxyethanol, which is used as a solvent, as well as to make paints and varnish. It can also irritate the eyes and lungs if inhaled, and it has been shown to cause cancer in animals, but data in humans is lacking.

The worst of the bunch, however, is seemingly vinyl chloride. Out of the roughly 150 rail cars, of which 50 derailed, five of them contained the stuff, a highly-flammable toxic gas with a faintly sweet odor that is used in the production of plastics like PVC, also known as polyvinyl chloride. (That poly part of the chemical name makes a big difference.) Vinyl chloride is extremely noxious to inhale. Our bodies readily absorb it, causing significant damage to the respiratory and central nervous systems.

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As the liver metabolizes vinyl chloride, it spits out a chemical called chloroethylene oxide, which subsequently binds to our DNA, essentially vandalizing it and increasing the risk of tumor formation. As such, massive exposure to vinyl chloride is associated with a host of lung, liver, brain and blood cancers.

But when the vinyl chloride was burned, the chemical reaction generates new corrosive chemicals: phosgene gas and hydrogen chloride. The first, which has a history of being used in chemical warfare during World War I, can cause coughing, blurred vision, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting and death. The severity of symptoms depends on the level of exposure, but phosgene has also been linked to low blood pressure, heart failure and coughing up white to pink-tinged fluid, which is a sign of pulmonary edema, or fluid buildup in the lungs.

As for hydrogen chloride, the compound is normally stable, but at high temperatures, it bonds to water molecules easily. This creates hydrochloric acid, which is highly corrosive. When it falls from the sky, it creates acid rain, which is known to kill trees and wildlife.

While some of these chemicals will quickly fade from the environment, according to officials, others may linger. As of Tuesday, Feb. 14, the EPA said it had screened 459 homes, with 39 remaining to be screened. "To date, no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride were identified for the completed screened homes," the EPA said in a statement.

Salon has reached out to the EPA and will update this article if a response is received.

The EPA and other agencies are actively monitoring water for contaminants. So far, the derailment is reportedly far enough away from watersheds and local water supplies that it doesn't pose a risk to residents. Nonetheless, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation has urged members to get the water from their local wells tested as soon as possible.

Given that an estimated 100,000 gallons of vinyl chloride was released into the environment, it's perhaps understandable that some residents are wary of such reassurances. Some residents have vowed to seek independent testing while a flurry of lawsuits are brewing.

No one should have to undertake complex chemistry lessons to figure out if their home is safe or not.

No one should have to undertake complex chemistry lessons to figure out if their home is safe or not. Despite the comparisons to nuclear disasters, the East Palestine train derailment has more in common with a 2012 train derailment in Gloucester County, N.J. Similar to the current incident, a train derailed after hitting a collapsed bridge and released 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride that wafted into nearby Paulsboro, prompting evacuations.

Some, including DeWine, have questioned if these derailments are preventable with better regulation. At a Tuesday press conference, DeWine mentioned Norfolk Southern was not legally required to alert Ohioans regarding the toxic cargo.

"Frankly, if this is true — and I'm told it's true — this is absurd," DeWine said. "Congress needs to take a look at how these things are handled."

In fact, industry lobbyists have invested considerable effort into blocking reforms. Railroad Workers United, a cross-union rail workers' reform group, told The New Republic that the cause of the wreck "appears to have been a 19th-century style mechanical failure of the axle on one of the cars — an overheated bearing — leading to derailment and then jackknifing tumbling cars."

This mechanical failure could have been averted with better equipment, but reforms have been blocked. In 2017, rail industry donors shoveled more than $6 million in funds to Republican campaigns, including the Trump administration, which later rescinded rules related to train braking systems, according to The Lever. If the train had brakes from this century, this disaster could potentially have been avoided, but Norfolk Southern's "lobby group nonetheless pressed for the rule's repeal, telling regulators that it would "impose tremendous costs without providing offsetting safety benefits," the Lever reported.

Norfolk Southern responded to Salon's request for comment by referring to a pair of press releases detailing community assistance efforts, such as establishing a $1 million fund to support East Palestine community.

Until more data becomes available, it's difficult to say exactly how damaging and far-reaching the effects of this disaster will be. Given the scale of the problem and the risks involved, the public is right to demand answers. Clearly, the railroad industry could use more oversight to update trains from obsolete Civil War-era technology. Only time will tell whether the comparisons to Chernobyl or nuclear bombs are accurate, but updating our transportation industry is something that could help us all breathe a little easier.

By Troy Farah

Troy Farah is a science and public health journalist whose reporting has appeared in Scientific American, STAT News, Undark, VICE, and others. He co-hosts the drug policy and science podcast Narcotica. His website is and can be found on Twitter at @filth_filler

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Analysis Chemistry East Palestine Environment Health Ohio Pollution Science Vinyl Chloride