Aftermath of Ohio train derailments

Recent train derailments in Ohio released harmful chemicals into the environment raised discussion on railroad safety.PHOTO CREDIT: Graphic by: Liz Fusco | News Editor

No one was reported injured and no immediate environmental threats were detected when a Norfolk Southern train derailed on March 4 in Springfield, Ohio. 

This comes just one month after the train derailment that took place in East Palestine, Ohio. 

According to an update posted on Feb. 14 by the National Transportation Safety Board, on Feb. 3 at approximately 8:54 p.m. 38 rail cars derailed and a fire broke out in East Palestine, damaging 12 additional rail cars. 11 of the derailed cars were carrying hazardous materials on board. 

Lorenzo Mosca, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, said that the train was on track from Madison, Wisconsin to Pennsylvania. Mosca explained that the main toxic chemical involved in the crash was vinyl chloride (C2H3Cl). 

Vinyl chloride is a colorless gas that is used primarily to make a hard plastic resin that is used to make a variety of plastic products, such as pipes, wire and cable coatings and packing materials, according to the National Cancer Institute. Additionally, higher levels of vinyl chloride exposure are associated with an increased risk of liver (hepatic angiosarcoma and hepatocellular carcinoma), brain and lung cancers, along with lymphoma and leukemia. 

In its pure form, vinyl chloride is a gas, therefore it was shipped in a high-pressure vat where it was turned into liquid in a compressed form, according to Mosca. 

Mosca said that five of the derailed cars were carrying vinyl chloride. Each of these five cars contained about 25,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, meaning 125,000 gallons were spilled in the derailment. 

“Vinyl chloride is heavily regulated by OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and so, in terms of, like, for example, if you were a worker at a plant that produces or uses vinyl chloride the maximum allowed concentration of vinyl chloride that you can have over an average 8-hour work day — it’s one ppm, which means one part per million,” Mosca said. “So to put it into context, it’s like the weight of a few grains of fine salt into two pounds of water.”  

Mosca said that acute exposure is what causes people who have been in a highly concentrated form of a toxic chemical, like vinyl chloride, to have the fast onset of medical and health problems, rather than cancers that are believed to be caused by chronic exposure. The acute symptoms people in the surrounding areas of East Palestine may experience are irritation to skin or mucous membranes, and irritation to the eyes, nose and mouth. 

Mosca also said that acute damage can also include chemical-induced asphyxia. 

In addition to the effects vinyl chloride has on people’s health, the derailment stands as an environmental threat as well. 

Vinyl chloride is a heavier gas, according to Mosca, meaning that it can be absorbed by water and soil and that the health effects that threaten humans in the surrounding area of the derailment also pose a threat to any mammal in the area. When it is absorbed by the water, vinyl chloride can damage marine ecosystems as well. 

“Usually whenever there is a chemical spill in the environment, one of the first effects that we see is that we see dead fish because they have a very sensitive metabolism that responds really dramatically wherever the contaminants are,” Mosca said. “So that’s what happened. Basically, we were well beyond the threshold for a chronic effect on animals and instead, there was an acute effect and the fish died.” 

However, Mosca said that the greatest threat to the situation may not have only been from the spilling of the tanks in the derailment. 

According to him, one of the measures taken to contain the possible chemical spills that could have been caused by the fire rather than the impact was the artificial rupturing of the remaining vinyl chloride tanks onboard that hadn’t ruptured naturally. The remaining chemicals were put in a trench that had been dug in the ground and burned. 

“By burning most of it, of course, we didn’t burn it into, like, clean material,” Mosca said. “We had some byproducts coming because the combustion that we did was not controlled, and from the photo, you can see, like, huge black clouds coming from the fire pits. So in that case, when you have an incomplete degeneration, you have several byproducts.” 

One of the byproducts Mosca cited was hydrochloric acid (HCl), which can cause acid rain in the surrounding areas — as displayed by many viral social media posts and videos that were taken from the surrounding areas. 

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, hydrochloric acid is used in the production of chlorides, fertilizers and dyes and is corrosive to the eyes, skin and mucous membranes. Acute exposure can cause esophagus, severe burns, ulceration and scarring in humans. Long-term exposure can cause chronic bronchitis, dermatitis, photosensitization and gastritis. 

Mosca said that to minimize the effects of the crash, first responders need to start with immediate clean up of the area, which means removing all the debris from the area, but eventually also cleaning the soil and the air in the area by removing it and disposing of it as hazardous waste by professionals. 

In a survey created by The Good Five Cent Cigar and sent out to 26 URI students, 88.5% of students said that they were aware of the spill. 78.3% of these students heard of the news via various social media sites, while 21.7% of students said they heard of this news via an official news outlet. 

The majority (54.2%) of students who participated in the survey said that they were most worried about the effect the derailment would have on the health and well-being of the people in the surrounding area of East Palestine. 

Additionally, 72% of students said they were unaware of the second Norfolk Southern train derailment that took place on Saturday. As of Tuesday, Norfolk Southern updated their safety policies in response to these two incidents, along with their operation awareness and response procedures. For more information on their updates, you can visit their official website.