How dangerous was the Ohio chemical train derailment? An environmental engineer assesses the long-term risks

Headaches and lingering chemical smells from a fiery train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, have left residents worried about their air and water – and misinformation on social media hasn’t helped.

State officials offered more details of the cleanup process and a timeline of the environmental disaster during a news conference on Feb. 14, 2023. Nearly a dozen cars carrying chemicals, including vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, derailed on the evening of Feb. 3, and fire from the site sent up acrid black smoke. Officials said they had tested over 400 nearby homes for contamination and were tracking a plume of spilled chemicals that had killed 3,500 fish in streams and reached the Ohio River.

However, the slow release of information after the derailment has left many questions unanswered about the risks and longer-term impact. We discussed the chemical release with Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer who investigates chemical risks during disasters.

Let’s start with what was in the train cars. What are the most concerning chemicals for human health and the environment long term, and what’s known so far about the impact?

The main concerns now are the contamination of homes, soil and water, primarily from volatile organic compounds and semivolatile organic compounds, known as VOCs and SVOCs.

The train had nearly a dozen cars with vinyl chloride and other materials, such as ethylhexyl acrylate and butyl acrylate. These chemicals have varying levels of toxicity and different fates in soil and groundwater. Officials have detected some of those chemicals in the nearby waterway and particulate matter in the air from the fire. But so far, the fate of many of the chemicals is not known. A variety of other materials were also released, but discussion about those chemicals has been limited.

State officials disclosed that a plume of contamination released into the nearby creek had made its way into the Ohio River. Other cities get their drinking water from the river, and were warned about the risk. The farther this plume moves downstream, the less concentrated the chemical will be in water, posing less of a risk.

Video of the derailment and fire.

Long term, the greatest risk is closest to the derailment location. And again, there’s limited information about what chemicals are present – or were created through chemical reactions during the fire.

It isn’t clear yet how much went into storm drains, was flushed down the streams or may have settled to the bottom of waterways.

There was also a lot of combusted particulate matter. The black smoke is a clear indication. It’s unclear how much was diluted in the air or fell to the ground.

How long can these chemicals linger in soil and water, and what’s their potential long-term risk to humans and wildlife?

The heavier the chemical, often the slower it degrades and the more likely it is to stick to soil….

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