By Areesha Nouman
In the beginning of February, an event took place here in Ohio that we have all probably heard about by now: the East Palestine Train Derailment. While officials say that the train derailment, which released toxic chemicals into the air and water, no longer poses a risk to the residents of the town, there’s still a lot we need to know and understand about what happened and why it matters.
What is the East Palestine Train Derailment?
On February 3rd, at around 9 o’clock at night, a train in East Palestine crashed off the rails, likely due to a wheel bearing on one of the train cars overheating. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, 38 of the train cars were derailed, causing a large fire to ignite and cause damage to 12 more train cars. This train wasn’t a passenger train, though; the train cars were carrying chemicals, many of which were dangerous. Out of the 38 train cars that derailed in the accident, 20 of them were carrying dangerous chemicals and materials, including ethylene glycol monobutyl, ethylhexyl acrylate, butyl acrylate, and most concerning to health officials, the toxic gas vinyl chloride. After the train derailed, officials conducted a controlled release of this vinyl chloride, which was done to reduce the risk of an explosion of chemicals.
The public didn’t know about how this happened until just recently, when the National Transportation Safety Board revealed the cause behind the train derailment. According to this report, one of the wheel bearings failed because of overheating. Officials say that the warning alarm didn’t go off until it was too late, and the train derailed because of this mechanical issue.
What was the result of the train derailment?
On February 12th, the Environmental Protection Agency told the public that “it had not detected contaminants at ‘levels of concern’ in and around East Palestine.” However, this doesn’t mean that the train derailment didn’t have harmful effects. When the train cars released the hazardous chemicals, witnesses reported a large blaze and also a plume of chemicals going into the Ohio river. Not only did this harm the animals in the area, but it also posed a risk to the residents of East Palestine. The toxic chemical spill into the river traveled almost eight miles in the water. And, as of February 24th, it is estimated that over 43,000 animals have died- including 38,222 minnows and 5,500 other species. Since officials contained the chemical spill and stopped it from spreading, there haven’t been any major signs of more animal deaths yet.
Once the train derailed, 1500 to 2000 people living in East Palestine were forced to evacuate because of the blaze. Not only were buildings and roads closed, but Governor DeWine ordered an evacuation “to include anyone in a one-by-two mile area surrounding East Palestine, including parts of Pennsylvania” on the day the derailment happened.
Though the residents were allowed to return on February 6, when the air and water quality testing did not show any significant reason for concern, this doesn’t mean that everything is back to normal in East Palestine. The train derailment is definitely something to take seriously into consideration, not only because of the risk it posed to the environment but the effect it had on the residents living there. Residents of East Palestine have started to question the reliability of trains and transportation, as well as raise concerns about long-term environmental effects.
The people living in East Palestine also suffered consequences from this train derailment, particularly when it came to their drinking water supply and even their health. On February 14th, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency conducted water testing and found two contaminants in the Ohio River, while others such as Governor Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania claimed that there was no need to be concerned about the water or air quality in the area where the spill occurred. So, when it comes to the safety risks of the people living there, it is unsure whether the water was contaminated or not or what the risk actually was in the environment. However, residents were advised to use bottled or filtered water supply just in case.
Are there any health risks that have stemmed from this event that has affected or could affect people in the future?
Government and environmental officials such as Governor DeWine, the EPA, and the NTSB have reassured residents that there is no reason for concern and that the water and air are safe in East Palestine. However, some residents have been reporting signs of health issues. Some have reported experiencing headaches and rashes since the derailment occurred, while other people reported respiratory issues and nausea. It is unclear what chemical is causing these symptoms in the residents, but it could likely be due to short-term exposure to the vinyl chloride that was used by officials for a controlled release in order to prevent the chemicals from spreading and an explosion to occur.
The residents of East Palestine are still concerned about the long-term effects that the derailed chemicals could have on their health along the line. While there is no clear answer, we can pay attention to news and updates from government and environmental officials and hope for the best. Governor DeWine is working with doctors and scientists from the CDC to screen the people in East Palestine for any potential health issues. In addition, environmental officials are working on testing the water and air quality and working on cleaning up the chemicals. Water contamination, air quality, and health are three main concerns that have stemmed from this derailment, and they are actively being tested and working on to mitigate health risks.
And most importantly- should we be worried?
The East Palestine train derailment is definitely an event that has raised questions of safety for the residents and what can be done next to make sure everyone is safe. There is certainly cause for concern, particularly because of the release of vinyl chloride- a chemical that contains chlorine and therefore can create combustion materials harmful and toxic. While we can’t know exactly what the long-term effects of vinyl chloride and other chemicals will be in the long run for East Palestine, state officials are monitoring the quality of the air, water, and environment and working to keep the residents safe. The health department is testing the quality of water, and many residents are having personal air quality testing carried out in their homes. The best we can do is hope that the chemicals and contaminants can be removed from the environment as efficiently as possible to clean up East Palestine and keep the residents safe.