Environmental and health disaster in Ohio
On the evening of February 3, 2023, a fifty-car Norfolk Southern Railway freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on the Pennsylvania border. Caused by a defective axle, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, the accident did not cause any direct injuries and residents who were evacuated on the day of the accident can now return to their homes, as the air quality is considered safe by U.S. authorities.
The derailment caused a chemical fire that firefighters were unable to approach for the first few days and required the evacuation of half of the town’s 4,800 residents. The greatest risk of the explosion came from vinyl chloride, and the decision was made three days after the accident to drain the product from five cars into a trench that was set on fire. This operation was able to eliminate the danger of an explosion but released a significant amount of chemicals into the atmosphere.
On February 8, people living within a radius of more than three kilometers were allowed to return to their homes, but some refused. The railway company has not yet produced a complete list of the products transported, only vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate and a lubricating oil considered not dangerous have been identified.
Vinyl chloride, used in the manufacture of PVC, is particularly dangerous, it can cause dizziness, headaches, torpor, and miscarriages and is associated with the possibility of developing liver, brain, blood or lung cancers. It is also a highly flammable product that releases hydrogen chloride and phosgene, a highly toxic gas that was used as a chemical weapon during World War I. Butyl acrylate is a liquid used in the manufacture of plastics and paints that can damage the lungs with repeated exposure.
However, the railroad company says the level of vinyl chloride to which people were exposed does not pose a long-term health hazard, even though, according to the Washington Post, experts believe the measurements were not made with instruments sophisticated enough to reach that conclusion.
According to Dana Barr, a professor of environmental health at Emory University in Atlanta, vinyl chloride could also continue to evaporate and increase the concentration of contaminants in the air over the next few months if it has managed to enter the soil and waterways in large quantities.
In addition, when they returned to their homes, East Palestinians found many dead fish and frogs in the streams and reported a strong odor of chlorine, charred tires, and eye-stinging nail polish. Outside the evacuation perimeter, a farmer reported that his domesticated foxes had developed fatal diseases since the accident, and a resident of a village seventeen kilometers from East Palestine saw all her chickens die overnight. The British newspaper the Guardian reports that about 25,000 Americans live in a potential blast zone of a railroad line carrying fuel and according to the Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh, 1,700 rail accidents occur each year in the United States. For Ohio, this is the third since October 2022. The Railroad Workers United union believes that an inspection of the train would have detected the defective axle and denounces a lack of personnel.
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