Here’s what we know about how toxic the Ohio train crash explosion is for people and the environment

Days after a 150-car train hauling large quantities of toxic and potentially deadly chemicals derailed and exploded in rural Ohio, questions remain about the potential human and environmental impact of the crash.

“There have already been reports of contamination in waterways, rivers and streams nearby from the spill,” PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur told Reckon. “This stuff certainly ends up in the soil, and then has the potential to end up being absorbed into groundwater underneath and then they’ve used hundreds of 1000s of gallons of other chemicals to put out the fire. It’s a disaster for the environment and public health.”

Once hazardous chemicals pollute groundwater, they can travel into streams, rivers, estuaries and other bodies of water. That can lead to the substances finding their way into drinking water and areas where wildlife live.

Groundwater contamination can also result in loss of water supply, degraded surface water systems and high costs for clean up, alternative water supplies and potential health problems.

Officials have yet to decide if the area is safe enough for residents to return home.

There is a sprinkling of farms and homes close to the crash site, while the rest of the residents of the 5,000-population town and county begin about 1000 feet to the west and extend for about a mile and a half. Around 2,000 residents were evacuated within the 1-mile evacuation radius.

While air and water monitors have been established in the area, there has yet to be any indication as to the severity of contamination levels or what the long and short-term environmental damage could be.

Evacuation zones of two miles have been established in areas of Pennsylvania close to the border with Ohio.

The crash occurred at 9 p.m. EST Friday, sending huge plumes of smoke and fire high into the air above East Palestine, a town about 20 miles south of Youngstown and 50 miles west of Pittsburgh. Local residents were urgently asked to evacuate as emergency services and National Transportation Safety Board officials monitored the incident.

The local Sheriff warned residents Sunday that there was a “high probability” of further toxic gas release and explosion.

According to officials, 20 of the 50 cars that derailed were carrying hazardous chemicals. Of those, 10 contained the flammable gas vinyl chloride, a carcinogen used in producing PVC pipes and other plastic materials.

The manufactured chemical has been linked to an increased risk of cancer in the liver, brain, lungs and blood. It can also cause dizziness, sleepiness and headaches.

A controlled release of the chemicals was conducted Monday, which was, in effect, a controlled burn. It created a massive plume of smoke in the air and a yellowish haze across the horizon, according to multiple images and videos on Twitter.

Officials said controlling the burn was safer as it prevented the pressurized chemical containers from exploding.

However, when burned, vinyl chloride creates hydrogen chloride, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and phosgene, a highly toxic chemical that can cause vomiting and breathing problems. It was used as a chemical weapon in World War One.

Phosgene can be deadly in small doses, dependent on the length of exposure. According to the CDC, people exposed to it may not show symptoms for 30 minutes to 48 hours after exposure

After successful treatment, most people make a full recovery. However, chronic bronchitis and emphysema have been reported due to phosgene exposure.

Even after entering the water supply, vinyl chloride can again become an airborne pollutant.

“If a water supply is contaminated, vinyl chloride can enter household air when the water is used for showering, cooking, or laundry,” according to the National Cancer Institute. 

In addition, the foam used to fight hazardous fires contain PFAS, or forever chemicals, which can seep into groundwater and are extremely difficult to break down. Those can cause cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and an increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease, according to a Harvard study.

The groundwater in the East Palestine area is used as drinking water. In 2019, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency specifically noted that a chemical spill in the area would pose a “greater threat” to drinking water and “warrants” more stringent protection.

The crash has also raised questions about the dangers of transporting toxic chemicals by rail.

“The freight train explosions, accidents and disasters that regularly occur across the U.S. and Friday’s example in East Palestine, Ohio show that time is of the essence,” said Masur. “We must act now to protect residents and first responders from the growing threat of trains carrying oil, chemicals, or any explosive or hazardous substances and move toward a cleaner, safer way of life.”

Masur told Reckon that he wasn’t aware of any rule or law that required freight carriers or chemical companies to have an emergency plan when rail disasters occur, leaving the public dangerously unprepared.

“Civilians living close to train tracks that carry hazardous substances, including oil, have no idea that a chemical bomb is passing their homes,” he added.

In 2015, PennEnvironment released a detailed report about the dangers of trains carrying oil in Pennsylvania.

The environmental advocacy projected that around 4 million residents were at risk of being involved in a catastrophic accident. The figure was based on residents living within a half-mile evacuation zone near to train tracks used for carrying oil and nearby train depots.

“Our report proves that there are millions, if not tens of millions, of Americans living in these higher risk areas, and just don’t know what these trains are carrying,” said Masur. “I think we all have to have a concern because so many of us are unwittingly living very close to tracks that are carrying incredibly volatile and hazardous cargo.”

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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