Chemical Spread from East Palestine Train Derailment Fire Exceeds Initial Predictions

On February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, USA. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported that toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride, were burned following the accident, releasing hazardous fumes into the air.

During a board meeting on Tuesday, the NTSB revealed that the derailment was caused by an overheated wheel bearing. This was followed by a controversial controlled burn due to concerns that the vinyl chloride might explode.

After the incident, black smoke billowed over East Palestine for several days. The derailment and resulting fumes led to the evacuation of between 1,500 and 2,000 of the town’s roughly 4,900 residents. Residents reported various health issues such as nausea, diarrhea, and headaches due to chemical exposure.

Vinyl chloride, a colorless and highly flammable gas used in the production of plastic, can cause numerous health problems, including drowsiness, loss of coordination, visual and auditory disturbances, nausea, headaches, and even death in severe cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The full extent of the hazardous chemical pollution released into the atmosphere over several days has not yet been fully understood.

A recent study indicates that the Norfolk Southern train accident resulted in chemical pollution spreading over a vast geographic area, including parts of the United States and beyond. Pollutants released into the atmosphere eventually became part of precipitation.

Researchers tracked the chemicals’ journey using precipitation data collected by the National Atmospheric Deposition Program’s (NADP) National Trends Network (NTN), which conducts wet weather measurements at 260 sites across North America.

The team discovered that inorganic pollutants were released due to the accident. These pollutants were found in precipitation (a form of wet deposition) from the Midwest, extending to the Northeast and reaching as far as southern Canada.

Published in Environmental Research Letters, Wisconsin researchers estimated the spatial extent of the chemicals resulting from the event. The pollutants spread across 16 states, covering approximately 1.4 million square kilometers.

The contamination affected not only the land area but also the natural environment, as polluted rain and snow impacted plants and their ecosystems.

In May, Norfolk Southern agreed to a $310 million settlement with the US government over the derailment disaster. Besides paying a $15 million civil penalty for violating clean-water laws, the company committed to covering hundreds of millions in cleanup costs.

Image credit: Xinhua News Agency