Ohio train derailment prompts health concerns

A Norfolk Southern freight train transporting six hazardous industrial chemicals derailed Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, leading to concerns of long-term contamination.

Fifty cars were involved in the crash and fire, 11 of which carried hazardous materials, The Washington Post reported. Residents of the nearby city were told to evacuate. The risk of contamination posed by the chemicals meant the fire couldn't be put out for days, and officials conducted a controlled release and burn of one chemical that posed an explosion risk.

Five days later, residents were told they could safely return to their homes, PBS reported. The Environmental Protection Agency reported it does not detect any air quality hazards since the fire was put out. On Feb. 15, the Ohio Emergency Management Agency announced that no contaminants were detected in the municipal drinking water, but asked those with private wells to test their water.

However, locals have reported headaches and eye irritation and have observed animal deaths. Experts told the Post that all six chemicals involved can be harmful to humans, and the fire could have also created other highly toxic substances. The chemicals involved were vinyl chloride, a carcinogen; phosgene, a highly toxic gas; butyl acrylate, which produces poisonous gases when burned; and ethyl hexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, which are irritants.

Residents and experts alike are concerned about long-term contamination.

"It is unclear how much of this volatile chemical escaped into the air or burned before entering surface waters and soil, but vinyl chloride is highly mobile in soils and water and can persist for years in groundwater," Cornell University soil and crop scientist Murray McBride, PhD, told the Post.

Environmental advocacy group Earthjustice said the governor should declare a state of emergency to receive federal aid. But Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said he was "not seeing" the need for further federal assistance, though President Joe Biden had offered it, the Post reported. 

Some residents have already filed a class-action lawsuit against Norfolk Southern seeking monetary compensation and medical monitoring for all affected.

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