A train owned by Norfolk Southern that was transporting various chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio because of a mechanical issue with a rail car axle on Feb. 3. The chemicals on the train were vinyl chloride, isobutylene, butyl acrylate, benzene, ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, which are all classified as highly flammable.
Vinyl chloride was involved in a controlled burn which officials decided to conduct on a few of the cars in the days following the derailment to release the chemicals under controlled conditions and to prevent an explosion. However, five of the cars contained vinyl chloride, which becomes hydrogen chloride and phosgene when burned. When mixed with water, hydrogen chloride becomes hydrochloric acid which can cause severe chemical burns and blindness if it comes in contact with a person’s eyes. Phosgene can cause an array of symptoms such as pulmonary edema, a burning sensation and heart failure. Officials urged Ohio residents living within the area of the controlled burn to evacuate or else they would be at risk for death.
“The effects [of the derailment] are clearly negative,” senior Jack DeRosier said. “I’m also questioning the ability of the people dealing with it such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They tested the water supply, but they tested it four days after the crash. Despite that, there’s still time for the possible contaminants in the water to seep into the water supply. The company has not thrown anything in reparations and the derailment was their fault since their new method that’s meant to save time and increase efficiency isn’t working.”
East Palestine is a small town with under 5,000 residents, but that doesn’t stop the impact from the accident from hitting them hard. Residents were told on Feb. 15 by the Ohio Emergency Management Agency that there were no contaminants detected in East Palestine’s municipal drinking water. Two weeks after the derailment, Ohio governor Mike DeWine along with EPA administrator Michael Regan drank tap water to show their confidence in the water’s quality. Despite the approval of the governor and the EPA, residents have reported experiencing headaches and eye irritation and observing animal deaths.
“I was horrified to learn of the train derailment, and I am concerned for the people and other living organisms in the area,” Science Department Chair Ariel Evans said. “I do not work for the EPA, and I do not know what the correct solution is in a situation like this. The EPA has said that the air and water quality is safe; however, residents of the area are reporting symptoms that they believe are related to the release of these chemicals into their environment.”
Additionally, the chemicals are causing harm to the animals in the area as well. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated that more than 43,000 animals have died both in and around East Palestine. They estimated that around 38,000 minnows and 5,550 other species such as fish, crayfish and amphibians were killed. None of these species are endangered or threatened but the death of these animals creates a big hit in the ecosystem.
“It really was tragic,” Green Club member and junior Mateo Silberman said. “I feel so bad for all of the marine life that live there. We need to be more conscious of our effect on the environment in order to prevent things like this from happening.”
The permanent effects of an occurrence such as this aren’t known yet, especially in an area like East Palestine. Officials and residents are proceeding with caution and navigating every new discovery as it comes at them.
“While the immediate effects should dissipate as cleanup efforts continue, damage to the ecosystem will take time to surface,” Evans said. “I believe it will be years before we know the extent of the environmental damage and health effects in the area.”