There are now millions of Americans who face the prospect of significant health risks following a train derailment in eastern Ohio that spilled highly toxic chemicals into the environment and prompted authorities to conduct a dangerous “controlled burn” of the pollutants in a desperate bid to avoid a potentially even more catastrophic explosion.
According to one hazardous materials expert, though, the burning of the spilled pollutants and resultant toxic smoke plume was akin to having “nuked a town with chemicals” in order to reopen the rail line, TownHall reported.
Meanwhile, even as authorities have said it is safe for residents of East Palestine, Ohio to return to their homes, concerns over potential health risks have only grown following the recent disclosure that several other highly toxic and carcinogenic chemicals had been spilled and burned in the derailment in addition to what had been initially reported.
Like they “nuked a town with chemicals”
Local CBS affiliate WKBN reported that Sil Caggiano, a former fire chief and hazardous materials expert, said of the controlled burn of the toxic chemicals, “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open.”
That followed the disclosure from the Environmental Protection Agency and Norfolk Southern that in addition to vinyl chloride, the derailed train was also carrying ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene, which are toxic and can potentially cause cancer in those who are exposed to them.
“I was surprised when they quickly told the people they can go back home, but then said if they feel like they want their homes tested they can have them tested. I would’ve far rather they did all the testing,” Caggiano said, and added, “There’s a lot of what ifs, and we’re going to be looking at this thing 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the line, and wondering, ‘Gee, cancer clusters could pop up, you know, well water could go bad.'”
The hazardous materials expert urged everyone in the vicinity to thoroughly clean their homes of potential toxic residue and to immediately get a health checkup to serve as a baseline for possible future liability claims against the railroad if health problems related to the chemicals eventually develop.
“We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open.”
— Sil Caggiano, hazardous materials specialist, on the dangerous chemicals on board the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, just over a week ago
Watch this in full: pic.twitter.com/qzyWOyFHif
— The Recount (@therecount) February 13, 2023
The derailment and chemicals spilled
According to Axios, the Norfolk Southern-operated train pulling 150 cars, some of which were tanks full of different chemicals, derailed on Feb. 3 near East Palestine, possibly due to a bad axle on one of the cars — as was observed in pre-derailment security camera footage that showed sparks and flames beneath a car — though a federal investigation remains ongoing.
Initially, concern was limited to just five tanker cars carrying vinyl chloride, a chemical used to create PVC plastics and vinyl, and a decision was made to vent the damaged tankers and burn the spilled chemicals to reduce the risk of a gaseous buildup and massive explosion.
Unfortunately, vinyl chloride is carcinogenic and known to negatively impact the central nervous system and liver as is, but is arguably even worse when burned as it creates the chemical compounds of phosgene, a poison gas used in World War I, and hydrogen chloride gas which, when mixed with water vapor and other compounds in the atmosphere, can create damaging acid rain.
Now comes word of the other toxic chemicals that likely spilled and possibly mixed together and were burned in the derailment — potentially creating other dangerous toxic compounds — and concerns have unsurprisingly escalated for not just the residents, pets, and wildlife of East Palestine but also those who live downstream and downwind from the scene of the fiery crash.
Company will likely be held liable
The EPA is closely monitoring the situation and testing samples of air, soil, and water for hazardous substances, and though some has been detected thus far, the agency appears to have downplayed the possible health risks for most people and animals — aside from fish — in the vicinity.
That said, the EPA also put Norfolk Southern on notice that it could be held liable, at the very least, for the costs associated with the agency’s response and clean-up efforts, which is separate and apart from the very real prospect of the company being held liable through lawsuits filed by residents and future victims of the environmental disaster.