Toxic Chemical Pollution: Ohio Train Derailment Highlights Risks of Chemical Spills

Toxic chemical spills and industrial accidents, from manufacturing pollutants to transportation disasters, happen with alarming frequency considering their long-lasting and potentially deadly effects. The most recent disaster, the February 3, 2023 derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, has once again highlighted the fragility of our air and water systems. It has also emphasized the importance of railroad safety . It has also caused many to question corporations that profit from chemicals that have the potential to destroy all we know.

Life in East Palestine, a tiny town 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, may not ever be the same. The town woke up as usual on that fateful Friday morning, but just before 9 p.m., everything changed. Even if the people, land, and water eventually recover, it will be defined in terms of “before the derailment” and “after the derailment.”

One week after the spill, many of the town’s 4,700 residents have complained of severe headaches, burning eyes, and breathing difficulties. The silver-white bodies of thousands of fish float dead in nearby creeks, and dozens of pets and chickens have been reported dead.

Many people have decided to leave the small town, leaving remaining businesses devastated. But it may be too late, even for those who left immediately. The acrid smell in the air that began immediately after the derailment was a vivid indicator that damage has already been done. From the very first breath of chemicals that townspeople breathed in, they were exposed to toxins that could, within days or decades, trigger deadly illnesses and diseases.

These are just the beginning of health problems that will likely result. Several deadly chemicals on the train’s manifest, including benzene, ethyl hexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether. Of most concern, however, are vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, which appear to be the two released in the most significant amounts. Both are known to cause symptoms as mild as nausea or as serious as cancer, and no one knows just how far their deadly trail will reach.

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Deadly Chemicals on the East Palestine Train
Vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, benzene, ethyl hexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether are the chemicals that have caused the most concern in the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment. Eleven cars contained these chemicals, and many burned in the aftermath of the crash, seeping into the air and groundwater.

People who live in and near East Palestine will be living in fear, probably for the rest of their lives. Liver cancer and lung cancer are the two most common cancers caused by vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, and a slew of other potential illnesses are now on the horizon.

Long-term, low-level exposure to these chemicals increases the risk for cancer. Short-term, exposures can also increase cancer risk, as well as pose risks for pregnant women and developing children.

Vinyl chloride
On February 6, the temperature of one of the freight cars rose to critical levels. Ohio’s Governor Mike DeWine has said that officials had to choose between releasing the known carcinogen into the air to cool or risking an explosion that would have likely sent thousands of pounds of shrapnel flying through the air. They chose to release the chemicals.

When they did so, a deadly black cloud of vinyl chloride, used to make PVC, floated over East Palestine.
Vinyl chloride is one of the most prevalent chemicals that tainted the water supply at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. Today, tens of thousands of Marines, their families, and contracted workers have filed claims against the government because the chemical-contaminated water caused cancers, miscarriages, and other injuries that are now believed to have killed or injured hundreds of people.

When vinyl chloride burns, it creates a noxious cocktail of hydrogen chloride and phosgene. These chemicals irritate the eyes, ears, and throat — all symptoms that residents are now reporting weeks afterward.

Within a couple of days after the dark cloud of vinyl chloride dissipated, officials gave residents the all-clear to return. Environmental experts remain skeptical. Little research has been done on exactly how different types of exposure affect the human body. We are still learning how water exposure and air exposure differ, for example. We know that they have long-lasting effects, however, and that they are not easily eliminated from the ecosystem.

Butyl acrylate
Butyl acrylate is used to make polymers, resins, and paints. It is a clear gas, and it has an odor that smells a bit like overripe fruit.

While exposure can cause symptoms as mild as eye and throat irritation, it has also been linked to lung cancer.

An entire train car of butyl acrylate spilled and was burned in the fire that resulted from the derailment. What this means for those who were exposed is yet to be seen. We also do not yet know the environmental impact on drinking water sources, as well as to the surrounding land and air.

Benzene is either a clear or light yellow liquid, and it can evaporate quickly. Recently, there has been considerable concern that small amounts of benzene in sunscreen are exposing people to cancer risks. Benzene is often found in plastics, resins, nylon, and in some dyes, pesticides, and detergents.

Even a little exposure to benzene has been known to cause drowsiness, dizziness, tremors, vomiting, or sleeplessness. Those with high levels of short-term exposure have been known to succumb to unconsciousness or death. When people are exposed to benzene over a year or more, they tend to have serious problems with blood, bone marrow, and their immune systems.

Ethyl hexyl acrylate
Ethyl hexyl acrylate is the name of a colorless liquid with a seriously acrid smell. Those who are exposed through the air or contact with the skin or eyes often suffer irritation of the eyes, skin, and respiratory system.

Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether
Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether is a compound used in paints and varnish. It is highly flammable and the gases it emits are known to cause nausea, irritate the eyes and nose, and lead to headaches, dizziness, and vomiting.

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“Who Do We Trust?”

Unfortunately, environmental disasters in recent decades have fueled the public’s distrust of the EPA and other regulatory agencies. For example, the EPA has now admitted that it lied about air quality after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Thousands of first responders have now suffered from related cancers and illnesses despite the EPA’s insistence at the time that it was safe.

It’s not just the EPA people don’t trust. Various local, state, and federal regulatory offices have denied or even lied about contaminants for decades. To make things worse, regulatory agencies tend to shift their focus based on political contributions. Each administration seems to change its priorities based on political leanings.

For example, in 2016, under oversight of Director Scott Pruitt, the EPA relaxed a number of regulations intended to protect people and the environment. The EPA downplayed the dangers of chemicals like glyphosate and asbestos and eliminated many of the protections for workers, residents, and groundwater supplies. Their reduced oversight allowed many corporations to profit from the sale of dangerous chemicals while federal regulators turned a blind eye.

Now, as state and federal agencies tell East Palestine residents that all is safe, they are rightfully skeptical.

State and federal overseers have now said that the air and water in East Palestine are safe. At the same time, they encourage residents to drink bottled water and take part in free government testing.

Ohio Train Derailment Litigation
Lawsuits in the East Palestine train derailment are to be expected. After all, thousands of people have faced potentially dangerous exposure, businesses have been destroyed, and lives have been forever altered.

Onder Environmental Law is determined to hold the responsible parties accountable. We’ve made it our mission to protect the rights of everyday people. We do that by representing residents, water companies, small businesses, and other people who have been seriously physically or financially affected by the negligence or misdeeds of corporations.

If you represent a water district, business, or are personally affected by this toxic pollutant disaster, we want to help. Call Onder Environmental Lawyers today for a free, no-obligation consultation.

We are dedicated to protecting you and your rights. Stand with us to change the way corporations do business.

Call 314-963-9000 for a free, no-obligation consultation.