On Feb. 3, 2023, 38 train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, several of which were carrying hazardous chemicals. Shortly after the collision, a massive fire broke out and residents were advised to evacuate but told there were no adverse health effects.
Three days later, officials conducted a controlled burn of the toxic chemicals to prevent the remaining train cargo from imploding.
Five of the train cars that caught fire were carrying 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride, a colorless, odorless gas used to produce various plastic products from kitchen ware to wire coatings to vehicle interiors. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, vinyl chloride can increase the risk of liver cancer, brain and lung cancers and leukemia. It takes between seven and 11 years for the chemicals to begin breaking down in humans and animals and is typically ingested by breathing in contaminated air.
Other train cars were carrying ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene, all carcinogens to the human body in high doses.
According to an investigation update from the National Transportation Safety Board, a wheel bearing was in the final stages of overheating. While examination of the disaster is ongoing, officials have determined that mechanical failure is one of the causes of the derailment.
Despite government officials deeming it safe to return to their homes, East Palestine residents are hesitant to make their way back to the area. Locals who have returned home have reported experiencing headaches, nausea and rashes.
“The Norfolk Southern train derailment has upended the lives of East Palestine families, and EPA’s order will ensure the company is held accountable for jeopardizing the health and safety of this community,” said Michael S. Regan, administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Health and environmental concerns plague locals and those across the nation. Concerns of water and air contamination are being vocalized across social media platforms. In a TikTok video posted by Ohio resident @nicolettte_lynn, she shows the dense amount of film that floats to the top of a glass of tap water.
Dead aquatic life was reported floating downstream from the mouth of the Mississippi River and across various waterways and tributaries.
University of Maine associate professor in the Department of Chemistry William Gramlich spoke with WABI-TV about the Ohio derailment.
“Rails, from my understanding, are a pretty common way to ship chemicals. It tends to be safer than trucks,” Gramlich said. “One would hope they’ve developed a safe way to transport through that.”
While the situation is varied, the state of Maine and Canada experienced a similar catastrophe several years ago. The Lac-Mégantic rail disaster occurred on July 6, 2013, after a 73-car train carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Canada. Ultimately, this derailment caused a massive explosion, killing 47 people and destroying much of the downtown. The catastrophe on the Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic railroad echoes the demand for regulation and safety concerns expressed during the Ohio train derailment.
Despite the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, there has been little regulation on train safety in Canada and the United States.
“Rail companies have spent millions of dollars to oppose common-sense safety regulations. And it’s worked,” United States President Joe Biden tweeted on Feb. 21. “This is more than a train derailment or a toxic waste spill – it’s years of opposition to safety measures coming home to roost.”
Three weeks after the initial disaster, officials continue to monitor the air and waterways. Investigation of the derailment is ongoing.