The drama began with a fiery crash on Friday night that involved 50 train cars, including 10 with hazardous materials. Rail operator Norfolk Southern reported that no one was injured. However, there were immediate concerns about the vinyl chloride being carried by five of the cars. The chemical, which is used to make hard plastic resin in plastic products, has been linked to a high risk of liver, blood, brain and lung cancer.
The controlled release was aimed at alleviating the danger of explosion, and flames and dark smoke could be seen high in the sky as it got underway. It involved releasing vinyl chloride into a trough and then igniting before it had a chance to be released in the air. Crews in charge of the operation had reportedly carried out this type of release safely in the past.
Authorities are monitoring air quality in the area closely. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered evacuations ahead of the planned release, saying in a news conference: “You need to leave, you just need to leave. This is a matter of life and death.”
Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro noted that there had not been concerning readings three hours into the operation, but he did urge residents of his state who live within a two-mile radius of the derailment site near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border to shelter in place with their windows and doors closed.
Vinyl chloride, which can cause a person to pass out or die if they breathe it and can burn easily at room temperature, is undoubtedly very dangerous. However, past studies have involved workers who breathed the chemical in across a long span of time. This means it is not clear how the known carcinogen could affect people in a sudden release or how the decision to burn it off could affect its dispersal, but short-term exposure has been linked to drowsiness, fatigue, headaches and dizziness.
However, environmental groups are raising alarm bells over the chemicals that are being released into the air through the controlled burn – hydrogen chloride and phosgene – both of which pose dangers of their own.
The latter is a highly toxic gas that was used as a weapon during World War I and can cause breathing difficulties, choking, chest constriction, vomiting and even death. Hydrogen chloride, meanwhile, is known for its strong odor and ability to cause severe irritation to the skin, nose and throat.
Those living near the site of the derailment have also expressed concerns about the chemicals making their way into the groundwater. Experts say that this is indeed a possibility, but the extent of the damage will depend on the amount of the chemicals that are released into the air and how far the smoke plume ultimately spreads.
Vinyl chloride dissolves in water and can make its way into groundwater or spread when other chemicals break down. Although experts say it is unlikely to build up in animals or plants that humans consume the way that compounds such as PFAS do, the Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency admitted in a Facebook post that some of the chemicals could have spilled into an area stream known as Sulphur Run.
There is currently no time frame for the return of the area's residents, and the Environmental Protection Agency will be monitoring the area's air and water quality. Meanwhile, the remaining fires are expected to extinguish on their own and will not be put out by crews. The East Palestine City School District will remain closed through the rest of the week due to a local state of emergency.
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