Concern grows over US handling of toxic chemicals after Ohio train derailment
The concern is growing over the handling of toxic chemicals by US authorities after a freight train derailed in the village of East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month.
About 50 Norfolk Southern freight train cars derailed on the night of February 3 in East Palestine, a town of 4,800 residents near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, due to a mechanical problem on the axle of one of the vehicles.
There were a total of 20 hazardous material cars in the train consist, 10 of which derailed, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a US government agency responsible for civil transportation accident investigation.
Five derailed hazmat cars, the NTSB said, were carrying vinyl chloride, a colorless gas that burns easily and is produced industrially for its commercial uses.
After hundreds of residents evacuated their homes, the emergency crew conducted a controlled release of the chemicals on February 6 to avert a possible explosion, but the operations were said to have discharged toxic and potentially deadly fumes into the air.
Vinyl chloride exposure is associated with an increased risk of a rare form of liver cancer, as well as primary liver cancer, brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia.
The controlled burn would also release phosgene and hydrogen chloride. Phosgene is a highly toxic gas that can cause vomiting and breathing trouble and was used as a weapon in World War I.
A group of state, federal, and local officials issued a statement on February 8, saying that "evacuated residents in and around East Palestine can now safely return home."
"Air quality samples in the area of the wreckage and in nearby residential neighborhoods have consistently shown readings at points below safety screening levels for contaminants of concern," they alleged.
"This is one of the deadliest environmental emergencies," US Congressman Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat, tweeted on Monday. "And no one is talking about it."
East Palestine "is undergoing an ecological disaster" because authorities "blew up the train derailment cars carrying hazardous chemicals," US Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, said.
The US Environmental Protection Agency reportedly sent a letter to Norfolk Southern, stating that more dangerous chemicals have been found on the derailed train.
Among the substances were ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene. Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist, said that ethylhexyl acrylate is especially concerning.
Contact with ethylhexyl acrylate, a carcinogen, can cause burning and irritation of the skin and eyes. Breathing it in can irritate the nose and throat and cause coughing and shortness of breath.
"I was surprised when they quickly told the people they can go back home, but then said if they feel like they want their homes tested, they can have them tested. I would've far rather they did all the testing," Caggiano said.
Caggiano added it was likely that some of these chemicals could still be present in homes and on objects until they are cleaned thoroughly.
"There's a lot of what-ifs, and we're going to be looking at this thing five, 10, 15, 20 years down the line and wondering," he warned. "Cancer clusters could pop up, you know, well water could go bad."
Four class action negligence lawsuits have been filed by residents and business owners who say they were impacted by the chemical train derailment in East Palestine.
All four complaints asked judges to declare the lawsuits class actions, which would allow other people impacted by the derailment to become plaintiffs. The suits estimated that there could be anywhere from 1,000 to nearly 2,000 people possibly included in the class.
The lawsuits also want the courts to order Norfolk Southern to pay damages, including any current or future medical costs for exposure to toxins.
The US Environmental Protection Agency said on Sunday that it continues to conduct air monitoring throughout the East Palestine community.
"Air monitoring since the fire went out has not detected any levels of concern in the community that can be attributed to the incident at this time," the agency wrote in an update while acknowledging that "residents may still smell odors from the site."
According to the US Department of Transportation, about 4.5 million tons of toxic chemicals are transported by rail each year, with an average of 12,000 rail cars shipping the materials through cities and towns each day.
The incident is "the tip of the iceberg and a red flag," Ron Kaminkow, secretary for the Railroad Workers United, a non-profit labor group, was quoted by The Guardian as saying. "If something is not done, then it's going to get worse, and the next derailment could be cataclysmic."