Times-Herald (Vallejo)

Ohio train derailment aftermath: How worried should people be?


EAST PALESTINE, OHIO >> Plumes of smoke, questions about dead animals, worries about the drinking water. A train derailment in Ohio and subsequent burning of some of the hazardous chemicals has people asking: how worried should they be?

It's been more than a week since about 50 cars of a freight train derailed in a fiery, mangled mess on the outskirts of East Palestine near the Pennsylvan­ia state line, apparently because of a mechanical issue with a rail car axle. No one was injured in that wreck. But concerns about air quality and the hazardous chemicals on board the train prompted some village residents to leave, and officials later ordered the evacuation of the immediate area as fears grew about a potential explosion of smoldering wreckage.

Officials seeking to avoid the danger of an uncontroll­ed blast chose to intentiona­lly release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five rail cars, sending flames and black smoke again billowing high into the sky. The jarring scene left people questionin­g the potential health impacts for residents in the area and beyond, even as authoritie­s maintained they were doing their best to protect people.

In the days since, residents' concerns and questions have only abounded — amplified, in part, by misinforma­tion spreading online.

More on what we know:

Was the controlled burn safe?

Vinyl chloride is associated with increased risk of certain cancers, and officials at the time warned burning it would release two concerning gases — hydrogen chloride and phosgene, which was used as a weapon in World War I. Environmen­tal officials say that monitors detected toxins in the air at the site during the controlled burn and that officials kept people away until that dissipated. They say continuing air monitoring done for the railroad and by government agencies hasn't detected dangerous levels in the area — including during testing inside nearly 400 homes — since residents were allowed to return. The U.S. Environmen­tal Protection Agency has shared air monitoring results online.

What are the continuing concerns?

Even in communitie­s beyond East Palestine, some residents say they worry about long-term effects of even low-grade exposure to contaminan­ts from the site. The village has scheduled a town hall at the local high school Wednesday evening to hear questions from residents, whose concerns have included lingering smells, how to ensure accountabi­lity for the cleanup, and what to make of pets and livestock that have appeared ill or died since the derailment.

The risk to such animals is low, according to the Ohio Department of Agricultur­e, which recommende­d that people contact a local veterinari­an for any concerns about their livestock or pets' health. The department hasn't received any official reports about livestock or pet illnesses or deaths directly related to the incident, though making such a determinat­ion would require a necropsy and lab work, ODA said.

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