Ohio Train Derailment Raises Concerns About Region’s Hidden Toxins

The community of East Palestine, Ohio, was thrust into the national spotlight following the February 2023 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying highly toxic and explosive chemicals.

When a “controlled burn” sent toxic particles over a wide area surrounding the community, residents naturally wanted to know who was at fault and how the catastrophe would impact their health. The conversation also brought home an important truth: the industrial economy surrounding East Palestine has been steeped in dangerous airborne chemicals for generations.

Defective Train Axle Causes Pileup 

On the evening of February 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern workers failed to spot problems with an axle on one of the train cars, which caused the train to derail. The train included 11 cars carrying hazardous chemicals, including vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate and benzene.

Faced with train cars leaking highly flammable chemicals, authorities conducted a “controlled burn” in hopes of preventing an explosion. The burn lasted six days and created a cloud of noxious chemicals that lingered over the region, and residents reported that toxic fallout killed fish and poultry.

Health Risks Follow Toxic Fallout

After the fire, East Palestine residents learned they had been exposed to highly toxic chemicals, including:

  • Vinyl chloride is known to cause cancer, in particular liver cancer, as well as headaches and nausea. When burned, it releases gases that can cause respiratory irritation and chest pain, including hydrogen chloride and phosgene. It is used in manufacturing PVC pipes.
  • Butyl acrylate is associated with nausea and headaches and is a known carcinogen linked to lung cancer. It is used to make paint, polymers and resins.
  • Benzene damages red blood cells and causes inflammation in the airways. It can lead to anemia and leukemia. Because it is processed through the kidneys, benzene can also cause kidney damage. It is used to make plastics, nylon and other synthetic fibers, and pesticides.

How the Train Derailment Intensifies Pollution in the Area

East Palestine is located near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border in the Upper Ohio River Valley. The area has long been home to heavy industry, including coal plants, nuclear, hazardous waste incinerators, and — more recently — petrochemical companies.

The unique topography makes it highly attractive for industrial development, because the river makes transportation easy. However, the mountains surrounding the river also trap pollution in the area. No matter where petrochemical plants are located, residents living near them have higher incidence of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, miscarriage, preterm birth, and birth defects. For example, children born to mothers living near oil and gas development are 40%-70% more likely to have congenital heart defects.

With the added chemicals from this train accident, residents of this area have been set up for ongoing health concerns and birth defects.

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