Ohio Train Derailment: Vinyl Chloride Exposure is Dangerous, Long-term Health Hazard

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  • Source: UncoverDC
  • 09/19/2023

The train derailment that caused the release of vinyl chloride on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, is a disaster for local residents and outlying communities alike. Citizens in E. Palestine, a town of approximately 4700 people, were advised to evacuate immediately. The Norfolk Southern train was allegedly carrying 100,000 gallons of vinyl chloride. According to the American Chemical Society, safety officials, "[i]n an effort to avoid an explosion, railroad, and state authorities began a controlled release and burn of the vinyl chloride Feb. 6. Earlier that day, the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania ordered an immediate evacuation of a 1- by 2-mile area that crossed the state line." 

Emergency teams have since been dispatched to sample waterways in the area. The Ohio River flows all the way to the Mississippi River. West Virginia is also on the lookout for evidence of vinyl chloride in its air and waterways.


Why a Controlled Burn?

Weather conditions in the area were favorable for a controlled burn due to very little wind on the day of the planned burn. Governor Mike DeWine released a statement explaining why the controlled burn was the safest way to handle the hazard at the time. According to the CDC, "[a]t all ambient temperatures, vinyl chloride is an extremely flammable and potentially explosive gas that is heavier than air. It has a mild, sweet odor, but odor is not an adequate warning of hazardous concentrations."

Twitter/Upward News/Ohio Accident

Key excerpts from DeWine's statement are provided below:

"The vinyl chloride contents of five rail cars are currently unstable and could potentially explode, causing deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes. To alleviate the risk of uncontrollable shrapnel from an explosion, Norfolk Southern Railroad is planning a controlled release of the vinyl chloride at approximately 3:30 p.m. today.

According to Norfolk Southern Railroad, the controlled release process involves the burning of the rail cars' chemicals, which will release fumes into the air that can be deadly if inhaled. Based on current weather patterns and the expected flow of the smoke and fumes, anyone who remains in the red-affected area is facing grave danger of death. Anyone who remains in the yellow impacted area is at a high risk of severe injury, including skin burns and serious lung damage."


Surrounding Communities Should Take Exposure Seriously

The incident endangers communities surrounding East Palestine, those downstream, and/or anywhere the air and water currents flow. UncoverDC spoke with Industrial Hygienist Kristen Meghan Kelly about the incident. She also appeared on the Justin Barclay show [begin at 35:00] on Monday, telling Barclay that while this is "primarily an inhalation hazard, this is also an ingestion hazard."

Kelly is very concerned for the communities affected by the release of the chemical. She says communities should take the incident "extremely seriously. Just to be frank here, things are not okay there. You have to understand all of the causal factors that are involved and how it will affect the ecosystem." Kelly agreed that the controlled burn was probably the best solution at the time to mitigate exposure.

She explained that it is actually more dangerous to wait for a possible explosion due to the pressurization of the chemical. An uncontrolled explosion could cause an "outward blast." In the case of a controlled burn, trenches are dug around the accident to encourage the plume to go straight upwards rather than forcefully outward in multiple directions. Nevertheless, the atmosphere, the food chain, creatures on land, and waterways will all be profoundly affected. Kelly says waste treatment plants are incapable of mitigating hazards from the chemical.

The photos coming out of Ohio are troubling to say the least, making the virtual media blackout on the incident baffling. This understandably profane Twitter post shows what looks like storm clouds, but the clouds are really the result of the controlled burn. Photos below capture the area shortly after the controlled burn was initiated.


Vinyl Chloride is a Highly Toxic Chemical

According to cancer.gov.," Vinyl chloride exposure is associated with an increased risk of a rare form of liver cancer (hepatic angiosarcoma), as well as primary liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma), brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia." It is also critical to understand the short-term risks of exposure. Kelly explained that those exposed to this chemical might experience "heaviness in their lungs due to fluid build-up." She urges citizens to heed their symptoms and consult a doctor immediately. Individuals with COPD and other lung diseases should be particularly alert to the dangers of exposure. Kelly says "the inhalation of vinyl chloride makes you feel like you are drowning inside your own body because your lungs will start to build up fluid. So, you will feel fine, but then you get fatigued."

The CDC warns of the dangers of exposure to vinyl chloride in the excerpts below. The full list of medical guidelines for exposure to vinyl chloride can be found here.

"Inhalation is the major route of vinyl chloride exposure; absorption is rapid and nearly complete. Gastrointestinal absorption is unlikely as vinyl chloride is a gas at room temperature. Dermal absorption is negligible.

Workers can be overexposed to vinyl chloride without being aware of its presence. A 5-minute exposure to airborne concentrations of 8,000 ppm can cause dizziness. As airborne levels increase to 20,000 ppm, effects can include drowsiness, loss of coordination, visual and auditory abnormalities, disorientation, nausea, headache, and burning or tingling of the extremities. Exposure to higher concentrations of vinyl chloride for longer durations can cause death, presumably due to central nervous system (CNS) and respiratory depression. The gas is heavier than air and can cause asphyxiation in poorly ventilated or enclosed spaces.

Death may result from respiratory depression. Exposure to certain chemicals can lead to Reactive Airway Dysfunction Syndrome (RADS), a chemically- or irritant-induced type of asthma. Children may be more vulnerable because of relatively increased minute ventilation per kg and failure to evacuate an area promptly when exposed. Hydrocarbon pneumonitis may be a problem in children.

Vinyl chloride is included in Reproductive and Developmental Toxicants, a 1991 report published by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) that lists 30 chemicals of concern because of widely acknowledged reproductive and developmental consequences. However, there is no conclusive evidence of reproductive or developmental effects in humans."

Stephen Petty, an expert on environmental hazards and PPE, studied the carcinogenic effects of vinyl chloride on hairdressers and barbers. Vinyl chloride was used as a propellant in hair spray between 1966 and 1973. His research contributed to removing the chemical from salons and barbers' products. He also testified during the pandemic on the fruitlessness of using masks against an aerosolized virus that is "a thousand times smaller than a cross-section of a human hair." Vinyl Chloride is also an aerosolized particle that easily evades all masks, including N-95 respirators. Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is the only type of PPE that adequately prevents exposure to the dangerous chemical.

Biden Administration and Legacy Media Silent

The near media blackout on the accident has been extremely perplexing. Kelly wonders whether communities were "given instructions on how to properly shelter in place. Were they told to turn off their HVAC system and tape vents and windows? I didn't see any of that. And also, just for the record, Masks will not protect you from vinyl chloride," said Kelly.

Both the Biden administration and the legacy media have also been woefully silent on the hazards of this environmental disaster. President Biden has yet to respond publicly with his response or possible aid for the disaster. While local information disseminated by crews on the ground is often more accurate and robust, it does not mean that outlying communities are adequately prepared for the fallout of such an incident. The hazardous fallout is not limited to communities local to the accident. According to Kelly, it is better to be proactive than reactive when transporting hazardous chemicals. Kelly thinks the cars in the incident may not have been properly marked and the obligatory notifications not issued to cities along the train's route. Lever reported federal officials stated the train was "not being regulated as a high-hazard flammable train."

According to Lever, "Documents show that when current transportation safety rules were first created, a federal agency sided with industry lobbyists and limited regulations governing the transport of hazardous compounds. The decision effectively exempted many trains hauling dangerous materials—including the one in Ohio—from the 'high-hazard' classification and its more stringent safety requirements."

"I'm very concerned,' said Kelly, "about [whether the correct first responders were dispatched] because when issues like this happen, you should have someone from my profession along with the fire department. People like me are trained to respond. I would put on self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and test. Responders should receive the manifest from the train to know also what is behind the scenes. You're dealing with certain classifications of these transported materials. If it's going through a town, those local fire departments are supposed to be made aware" of the contents being transported when they pose a public health risk.

There was a similar train accident in 2012 in Paulsboro, New Jersey. According to wkbn.com:

"20,000 gallons of the chemical were released. On Nov. 30, [2012], 28 residents sought medical attention for possible exposure, and the train crew and many emergency responders were also exposed, according to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board. This was a spill, not a burnoff such as the East Palestine derailment, but in both instances, there was a release of vinyl chloride into the ground and into the water."

Are Industries and the EPA Protecting the Public?

Unfortunately, Kelly also says that "the EPA has quite the history of concealing risks to us. "If you remember 9/11, when they said it was safe to go back and have all the asbestos, there are so many things throughout history. Think Erin Brockovich—when you deal with industries that have a lot of money, they have these special agreements with the EPA. These companies they their own internal response teams."

Internal audits may not adequately serve the public interest. "These corporations can audit themselves" and get away with producing reports that minimize the environmental and human impacts of a disaster like this one. Kelly also mentioned that in cases like these, the unions were right. They have fought for years to get better braking systems and more flexible schedules in place. According to Jacobin.com:

"Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg's department has no plans to reinstate an Obama-era rail safety rule aimed at expanding the use of better braking technology, even though a former federal safety official recently warned Congress that without the better brakes, 'there will be more derailments [and] more releases of hazardous materials.'

Most of the nation's freight trains—including the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in Ohio—continue to rely on a Civil War–era braking system. Norfolk Southern belongs to a lobby group that successfully pressed President Donald Trump to repeal a 2015 rule requiring newer, safer electronic braking systems in some trains transporting hazardous materials.

Norfolk Southern officials also fought off a shareholder initiative that could have required company executives to "assess, review, and mitigate risks of hazardous material transportation."

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