Is Ohio Air Safe After East Palestine Train Derailment, Toxic Chemical Plume?

Things have really gone off the rails in East Palestine, Ohio, in more ways than one. Make that at least fifty ways. On February 3, fifty cars of a 141-car train careened off their tracks, resulting in a gnarled mess, a major fire that lasted for days, and the threat of the whole thing exploding. This explosive realization prompted Norfolk Southern to conduct a “controlled release” of dangerous chemicals that the train carried, which further contributed to billows and billows of toxic dark black smoke floating over parts of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. But that’s not the only thing that’s been floating over this mess. There’ve been accusations of people being kept in the dark about the dangers of the toxic substances. There’ve also been plenty of political smokes and mirrors around this disaster as well as, surprise, surprise, very dark conspiracy theories that there’s somehow been a near total media blackout of this event.

It all started around 9 pm ET that day, when a Norfolk Southern train from Madison, Illinois, bound to Conway, Pennsylvania, literally went off the rails and then burst into flames. Of course, train on fire is never good news. But things were particularly bad with 20 of the train’s cars labelled as carrying hazardous materials. Firefighters had to battle the blaze for several days amidst single-digit freezing temperature. Not surprisingly East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway declared a state of emergency.

Then on February 6, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R) and Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro (D) ordered an immediate evacuation of a one-mile by two-mile area surrounding East Palestine that encompassed parts of both Ohio and Pennsylvania. The press release from DeWine’s office also described a different release: “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 [on February 6].”

What’s a controlled release? It may sound like something you would do if you really had to fart but were around other people. But, in this case, it involved “the burning of the rail cars’ chemicals, which will release fumes into the air that can be deadly if inhaled,” according to the press release. The press release continued by saying, “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.” Yeah, releasing vinyl chloride fumes into the air is no minor matter. Facing the “grave danger of death” certainly sounds even worse than facing the “not so big deal of death.”

You may not have heard of vinyl chloride, but you’ve probably used things made from vinyl chloride. Many plastic items such as credit cards, packaging materials, pipes, and wire coating are made out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is, in turn, made from vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride itself is very flammable. Inhaling vinyl chloride can lead to central nervous system problems such as dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, giddiness, and loss of consciousness, lung and kidney irritation, and the inhibition of blood clotting, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It also can increase your risk of liver cancers like hepatic angiosarcoma and hepatocellular carcinoma, brain cancer, lung cancer, lymphoma, and leukemia.

So vinyl chloride isn’t a great thing to be spreading into the air and the environment. But apparently by the time February 6 had rolled around Norfolk Southern Railroad had to choose between the “release toxic fumes into the air” option and the potential “release shrapnel and toxic fumes into the air” option. That’s a bit of a train in vain situation.

The EPA has been posting updates on the situation on their website since February 4. For example, on February 11, the EPA indicated that they had sent “a general notice of potential liability letter” to Norfolk Southern to document this release of hazardous substances. On February 12, the EPA posted a list of the train cars that had derailed and the products that they were carrying from Norfolk Southern. And they’ve continued to provide updates on the results of various types of air and indoor monitoring for the presence of toxic substances such as vinyl chloride. For example, on February 13, the EPA mentioned that “as of yesterday evening, 291 homes have been screened. To date, no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride were identified for the completed screened homes. There are 181 homes that remain to be screened.”

That may sound encouraging but not all East Palestine residents are convinced that it’s safe yet to return to their homes. Andrea Salcedo and Justine McDaniel reporting for the Washington Post quoted Maura Todd as saying, “I’ve watched every news conference and I haven’t heard anything that makes me think that this is a data-driven decision. We don’t feel like we have a whole lot of information.” The EPA website does not include enough information to determine whether testing has indeed been comprehensive enough to deem the area safe for humans. Even if the initial toxic cloud has dispersed, it is not clear whether more chemicals are continuing to leak from the train. Once chemicals get into the environment, they can spread throughout the ecosystem in many unexpected ways. It is still way too early to tell what kind of impact this disaster will have on humans, animals, and the environment around East Palestine.

One thing’s for sure. There hasn’t been a near total media blackout of this event, despite what was said in an episode of the Epoch Times TV show Facts Matter with Roman Balmakov entitled, “Media Blackout as US Chemical Disaster Rages On: Animals and Fish Dying.” Umm, how exactly would such a media blackout work? Is there a memo that goes out to every single journalist in the country? Yeah, such a memo wouldn’t go over too well with journalists. Anyone in the know will realize that telling journalists to not cover an event can be like telling them that they absolutely should cover that event. It can be like telling someone, “Whatever you do, do not look in the mirror.”

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