What Is Happening In Ohio? How the Train Derailment Pollution Could Harm Humans

Environmental And Health Concerns Grow In East Palestine, Ohio After Derailment Of Train Cars Containing Hazardous Material

Angelo Merendino / Stringer / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in Ohio earlier this month, sending deadly fumes into the atmosphere and chemicals into the environment.
  • The EPA said municipal drinking water and air quality are now safe.
  • Vinyl chloride and some of its byproducts are known carcinogens, and residents say they don't feel safe near the site.

After a train derailment sent a plume of thick black smoke into the air over an Ohio village this month, residents are left with questions about their safety and the long-term health effects of toxic chemical exposure.

Fifty train cars derailed and/or caught fire while passing through East Palestine, a village about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To avert an explosion, authorities conducted a "controlled release" and burn of the toxic material. The days-long blaze created a mushroom cloud of deadly fumes that could be seen for miles.

The train was transporting industrial chemicals, including vinyl chloride, which is known to increase the risk of liver, brain, and lung cancers. More than 1,500 residents were told to evacuate to avoid inhaling the deadly fumes. But within five days, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and local officials said it was safe for residents to return home and that municipal water was safe to drink.

Still, many who live near the site said they’ve experienced headaches, burning sensations in their eyes and throats, and nausea. About 3,500 fish have died near the train derailment, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Some residents report sick and dead pets, though the Ohio Department of Agriculture said it hasn’t received any official reports about the wellness of farm or domestic animals.

Vinyl Chloride Exposure Has Short- and Long-Term Effects

Vinyl chloride is the primary chemical released from the trains. It is used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC)—a hard resin used in many plastic products from pipes to bottles.

According to a CDC toxicity report, exposure to the chemical can cause liver damage and liver cancer, harm to the immune system, and birth defects. Workers exposed to high levels of vinyl chloride have also developed conditions like Raynaud’s phenomenon, as well as joint and muscle pain.

High-intensity short-term exposure to vinyl chloride may cause acute symptoms like coughing, dizziness, drowsiness, and headache. When a person is exposed to lower levels of vinyl chloride’s byproducts for many years—through their water, food, and environment—their risk of cancer and other long-term health harms increases.   

Burning vinyl chloride causes it to break down into other toxic byproducts. The EPA said it was monitoring for phosgene, hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and butyl acrylate, and others. Many of these chemicals can be deadly in high concentrations—phosgene, for instance, was used as a weapon during World War I.

The EPA said that by the end of the day Monday, it had screened the air inside nearly 486 homes and water in 28 private residential wells.

The agency said it did not detect contaminants "at levels of concern" in and around East Palestine. Still, people as far as 10 miles from the spill may smell odors because "the byproducts of the controlled burn have a low odor threshold."

The EPA stopped monitoring air for hydrogen chloride and phosgene on the evening of February 13.

Peter Orris, MD, MPH, senior physician in Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Illinois Chicago Hospital and Health Sciences System, said he felt that the statements of assurance from the EPA and other officials were likely "generated more to calm the public and to avoid panic than to be accurate scientific evaluations."

The East Palestine incident harkens back to a 2012 incident in which 20,000 gallons of vinyl chloride spilled in Paulsboro, New Jersey. On that day, more than 20 residents sought medical care for symptoms related to vinyl chloride exposure. In a New Jersey Department of Health survey of Paulsboro residents two years after the spill, more than half of the respondents said they had symptoms of vinyl chloride exposure, and more than 250 residents and emergency responders went to hospital emergency rooms due to the leak.

Many of the toxic chemicals involved in this incident move out of the human body fairly quickly, though some of byproducts of burnt vinyl chloride may not, Orris said. That makes it challenging to test for these chemicals in people. While he said that cancer screening is important for all Americans, a person’s individual need for cancer screening and other medical attention will vary based on their level of toxic exposure.

What Cleanup Will Look Like

The U.S. and Ohio EPA said it found spilled toxic materials in the soil and in two streams near the derailment site.

"This cleanup is going to be very difficult—this stuff does go into the ground, contaminates drinking water, lakes, rivers, streams," Orris said. "They're going to have to track all of that down. It's a tremendous task."

Norfolk Southern, the company operating the derailed train, said it was donating to the community affected by the leak and aiding in the clean-up. "We will be judged by our actions," company President and CEO Alan Shaw said.

Lawmakers have long tried to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act. The 1976 law was designed to protect humans and the environment from industrial toxic chemicals, but in reality, contains many loopholes that keep the government from effectively regulating chemical companies.

"Avoidance, preparation, and prevention—that ought to be built into the cost of these chemicals and it ought to be built into the thinking of the companies that produce them. This is really rather reckless behavior," Orris said. "The chemical industry has to take more responsibility for all of our health. And the health impacts and risks have to be taken into better concern in general."

What This Means For You

People living near the derailment site should be mindful of symptoms of toxicity, and call the local health department with any questions. The Pennsylvania Department of Health recommended residents who live nearby the toxic site wipe surfaces with bleach and follow specific safety protocols while vacuuming.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. East Palestine train derailment.

  2. Ohio Emergency Management Agency. East Palestine update  - 2/16/23 1:15 p.m.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Toxicological profile for vinyl chloride.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Medical management guidelines for vinyl chloride.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts about phosgene.

  6. New Jersey Department of Health. Paulsboro train derailment and vinyl chloride release, November 30, 2012 health survey findings and air quality impacts.

By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow.