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Health and environmental concerns are growing in East Palestine, Ohio, after several derailed train cars released toxic fumes last week.
On February 3, about 50 cars of a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Ohio, causing fires in the area for several days. Ten of the 50 derailed cars contained hazardous chemicals, including butyl acrylate and vinyl chloride, which were among flammable liquids that authorities feared could cause a major explosion.
Residents of eastern Palestine were later asked to evacuate as a precaution. On Monday, Feb. 6, crews conducted what officials called a “controlled release” of the hazardous chemical, causing a large plume of black smoke.
The evacuation order was lifted on Wednesday and since then, there have been a growing number of reports of people feeling a burning sensation in their eyes, animals falling ill and a pungent smell in the city.
Some business owners and East Palestine residents have filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, saying the company was negligent and demanding the company fund court-supervised medical screenings for serious illnesses that may have been caused by exposure to those chemicals.
Air quality continues to be monitored indoors and outdoors
Local officials insist that the air in East Palestine is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which is monitoring air quality, said it had not detected “any level of concern” in eastern Palestine as of Sunday.
The agency added that vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride were not detected in 291 homes screened as of Monday. 181 homes remain to be assessed in the Voluntary Indoor Air Screening Program.
The toxic fumes emitted have short and long term side effects
On Sunday, the EPA released a list written by Norfolk Southern of the toxic chemicals contained in the derailed cars. In addition to vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, it mentions ethylhexyl acrylate, which can cause headaches, nausea and respiratory problems in people exposed to it; as well as isobutylene, which can make people dizzy and drowsy.
Of particular concern was vinyl chloride, which was loaded into five cars – a carcinogen that turns into a gas at room temperature. It is commonly used to make polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a type of plastic used for pipes, wire and cable sheathing, and car parts.
When vinyl chloride is exposed to the environment, it breaks down from sunlight within days and changes into other chemicals such as formaldehyde. When it spills into soil or surface water, the chemical quickly evaporates into the air, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
Inhaling or drinking vinyl chloride can cause several health risks, including dizziness and headaches. People who inhale chemicals for many years can also experience liver damage.
EPA is monitoring for several other hazardous chemicals, including phosgene and hydrogen chloride, which are released when vinyl chloride is burned. Exposure to phosgene can cause eye irritation, dry throat, and vomiting; According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hydrogen chloride can irritate the skin, nose, eyes and throat.
The Columbiana County Health Department asks residents to contact their medical provider if they experience symptoms.
An expert recommends cleaning and vacuuming the surface carefully
Harmful effects of these toxic chemicals depend largely on concentration and exposure.
“Now that we’re getting into a long-term phase of this, people are going to be concerned about long-term chronic exposures coming down to lower levels,” said Ohio State University professor Karen Danmiller, who studies indoor air quality. .
He added that indoor spaces can be a critical point of exposure, which is why he urged residents of East Palestine to participate in EPA’s home air screening.
Danmiller recommends that residents wipe down surfaces, especially areas that collect dust, and wash odor-absorbing items such as bed sheets and curtains. He recommends vacuuming carefully in small bursts to prevent contaminants from becoming airborne.
Air cleaners and masks are no match for dangerous chemicals like vinyl chloride because of their small molecules, Danmiller told NPR.
Julie Grant of The Allegheny Front contributed reporting.