Residents of a small Ohio town fear for their health and safety after huge clouds of toxic chemicals were released in a controlled explosion following a train derailment earlier this month.
About 50 cars, including 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed in a violent accident in eastern Palestine around 9 p.m. on Friday, February 3.
Homes within a mile radius were soon evacuated as vinyl chloride was slowly released from five of these cars. Authorities then ignited the gases for a “controlled release” of the highly flammable, toxic chemicals in a controlled environment, creating a cloud of dark smoke that could be seen for miles.
Evacuation orders were lifted last week and the Environmental Protection Agency reported the area was safe.
But as residents return to their homes, some report burning sensations and persistent coughing. Local farmers have also claimed livestock are suddenly dropping dead, as state officials say more than 3,000 fish have died in seven-and-a-half miles of streams.
It has now been revealed that there were even more toxic chemicals on board the freight train than previously reported, as the US Environmental Protection Agency warns that chemicals continue to be released “into the air, surface soil and surface water”.
Officials conducted a “controlled explosion” of highly flammable, toxic chemicals earlier this month after a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio
“Don’t tell me it’s safe,” Cathey Reese, who lives in Negley, Ohio — north of eastern Palestine — told WPXI from Pittsburgh last week. “Something’s going on when the fish are floating in the stream.”
Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials have said a chemical spill related to the train derailment killed an estimated 3,500 small fish across seven and a half miles of creeks.
Meanwhile, a resident of North Lima, more than 10 miles away, said her five chickens and rooster died suddenly after train operator Norfolk Southern burned the wagons carrying vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen.
And Jenna Giannios, 39, a wedding photographer in nearby Boardman, said she’s had a persistent cough for the past week and a half.
She has only drunk bottled water and feels uncomfortable using tap water for bathing.
“They evacuated just a mile from this room and that’s just crazy to me,” Giannios, who set up a Facebook page for residents to vent their frustrations, told NBC News.
“I’m concerned about the long-term health effects,” she added. “It’s just a mess.”
Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist and former fire chief, also said he was “surprised” that residents were allowed to return home so quickly before all of their homes were tested.
“I would have much preferred they had done all the testing [first],’ he said. “There’s a lot of what-ifs, and we’re going to look at this thing in 5, 10, 15, 20 years and be like, ‘Gee, cancer clusters might show up, you know, well water might go bad.’
He added, “We basically bombed a town with chemicals so we could open a railroad.”
The area still smells of chemicals as some residents refuse to return home.
The February 3 train derailment sparked a fire visible for miles
About 50 cars, including 10 carrying dangerous goods, derailed in the city
Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist and former fire chief, said he was “surprised” that residents were allowed to return home so quickly before all of their homes were tested
Others took matters into their own hands when managers at Kindred Spirits Rescue Ranch evacuated 77 of their largest animals, including a yak and a zebu, for two days last week.
“We could see the cloud rising above us,” said founder Lisa Marie Sopko. “Our eyes burned and my face could feel it.”
And the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation is urging its members to have water from their local wells tested immediately.
“There’s a certain level of frustration among farmers,” the organization’s director, Nick Kennedy, told NBC News.
“They just want answers. Your existence could be at stake here.”
However, state and federal officials have denied there is any threat to residents and animals in the area.
Pictured here are Ohio National Guard crews donning protective gear as they prepared to enter an area of operations to assess remaining hazards
Members of the Civil Support Team are pictured analyzing data on February 7th
The Ohio National Guard received training before entering the potentially dangerous areas
State and federal officials have denied there are ongoing health concerns
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine pointed to a map showing the areas that were evacuated after the train derailment
Authorities had said chemicals like vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride could be potentially deadly, but that risk was mitigated by a controlled explosion last week.
Once this controlled burning was complete, the only risk of coming into contact with the toxins was that they were embedded in the ground, which then had to be dug up, Kevin Crist, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director at Ohio University The Air Quality Center told ABC News.
The Environmental Protection Agency has since reported that air and water samples collected in the region were within acceptable limits and announced Monday night that it has yet to find any worrying levels of air quality toxins.
It checked 291 homes near the crash site, as well as local schools and the community library, and found no levels of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride, department officials said.
But 181 homes in the area still need to be tested through Monday as the Columbiana County Health District awaits groundwater test results.
And Andrew Whelton, a professor of environmental and ecology engineering at Purdue University, said it’s possible the combustion could produce additional compounds that the EPA might not test for.
Officials have said the controlled blast released toxins such as phosgene and hydrogen chloride in large plumes of smoke.
The freight train carrying hazardous chemicals was en route to Pennsylvania when it derailed
A HEPACO worker places barriers in a creek in eastern Palestine February 9 as part of cleanup efforts
Ohio state officials have said nearly 3,500 fish died within a seven and a half mile radius
It has now been found that there were even more toxic chemicals on board at the time
Meanwhile, newly released Norfolk Southern documents show that more chemicals than previously reported were transported on the freight train, which was en route from Illinois to Pennsylvania.
Among them were ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that contact with ethylhexyl acrylate, a known carcinogen, can cause burns and irritation to the skin and eyes, while inhaling the substance can irritate the nose and throat and cause shortness of breath and coughing.
Inhalation of isobutylene can also cause dizziness and drowsiness, while exposure to ethylene glycol mobobutyl ether can cause eye, skin, nasal irritation and menace as well as hematuria (or blood in the urine), nervous system depression, headache and vomiting.
Initially, state health officials were only concerned about the presence of vinyl chloride, a highly volatile colorless gas that is manufactured for commercial use.
Some residents are now suing rail operator Norfolk Southern for negligence
A crew member is pictured here on February 9 at the crash site where cleanup efforts were underway
Some residents have taken matters into their own hands and started a Facebook group where neighbors can ask questions and vent their frustrations
Four lawsuits have now been filed against rail operator Norfolk Southern, including one alleging the derailment was caused by negligence. That lawsuit requires the railroad operator to pay for medical exams and related care for everyone living within a 30-mile radius of the crash.
Officials have said some of the toxins spilled into the Ohio River near West Virginia’s northern Panhandle, prompting officials there to shut down water production in the area and divert it to an alternative water supply source, Gov. Jim Justice said.
He stressed “everything is fine here” due to immediate action by agencies such as the state Environmental Protection Agency and the National Guard.
Still, as a precaution, water utility West Virginia American Water continues to improve its water treatment process.
It has also installed a second tributary on the Guyandotte River in case there is a need to switch to an alternative water source. The utility found that the raw water at the Ohio River inlet has not changed.
“The health and safety of our customers is a priority and there are currently no drinking water recommendations for customers,” the company said in a statement.
Neighbors gather outside a home in eastern Palestine after evacuation orders were lifted last week
Some local residents have refused to return home as chemical smells linger in the area
A town hall is scheduled for Wednesday evening where residents of eastern Palestinians can ask questions about the impact of the derailment. This was announced by Mayor Trent Conaway on Sunday.
In the meantime, experts are recommending residents take the home air screening offered by the EPA.
Karen Dannemiller, a professor at Ohio State University, also recommends residents wipe down surfaces — particularly those that collect dust — and wash items that absorb odors, like bed sheets and curtains.
She also advises vacuuming carefully to prevent pollutants from becoming airborne, advising NPR that air purifiers and face masks are probably no match for the dangerous chemicals.
The dangerous chemicals released in the East Palestine train derailment
A train carrying a variety of toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3.
Some of these chemicals have since been released into the air or soil due to local residents’ concerns about the long-term health effects.
Chemicals released in the derailment include:
Vinyl chloride – rail operator Norfolk Southern said 10 cars burned vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. It’s a highly volatile colorless gas used to make polyvinyl chloride, a plastic used in plumbing, cables, bottles, and credit cards.
Symptoms of exposure to vinyl chloride include drowsiness, headache, and dizziness. Longer term effects can include cancer and liver damage.
Hydrogen Chloride – In an attempt to mitigate the effects of vinyl chloride, officials conducted a controlled explosion of the train cars, releasing hydrogen chloride.
The chemical is irritating and corrosive to any tissue it comes in contact with, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn.
Brief exposure can cause throat irritation, but exposure to higher levels can cause rapid breathing, constriction of the bronchioles, blue discoloration of the skin, fluid buildup in the lungs, and even death.
Phosgene – a chemical that was also released in the controlled explosion.
Like hydrogen chloride, phosgene irritates the skin, eyes and respiratory tract.
Common initial symptoms are mild irritation of the eyes and throat, with some coughing, choking, nausea, occasional vomiting, headache and chest tightness.
Phosgene poisoning can also cause respiratory and cardiovascular failure, low blood pressure, and fluid buildup in the lungs.
Ethylhexyl acrylate – a chemical carried on the train
It is a known carcinogen that can cause burning and irritation to the skin and eyes. Inhaling the substance can also irritate the nose and throat, causing shortness of breath and coughing.
Isobutylene was also transported on the train.
Inhaling isobutylene can cause dizziness and drowsiness
Ethylene glycol mobobutyl was another substance shipped to Pennsylvania.
It can cause irritation of the eyes, skin, nose and nose, as well as hematuria (or blood in the urine), nervous system depression, headache and vomiting.