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Ohio alarmed by toxic chemicals

By HENG WEILI in New York | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-02-14 12:22

Aerial view of a train derailment containing the toxic chemical, vinyl chloride derailed on Feb 3 in East Palestine, a village of 4,700 people in northeastern Ohio near the Pennsylvania border. [Photo/VCG]

The fiery derailment of a train in Ohio is generating health concerns with reports of more toxic chemicals involved than previously thought.

The derailment occurred on Feb 3 in East Palestine, a village of 4,700 people in northeastern Ohio near the Pennsylvania border, about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

About 50 of the 150 cars on the Norfolk Southern Railroad train derailed as it traveled from Illinois to Pennsylvania.

Residents have filed a federal lawsuit in the derailment and are seeking to force Norfolk Southern to set up health monitoring for residents in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The lawsuit filed Thursday by two Pennsylvania residents calls for the rail operator to pay for medical screenings and related care for anyone living within a 30-mile (48-kilometer) radius of the derailment to determine who was affected by the release of toxic substances. The lawsuit also is seeking undetermined damages.

No one was injured in the derailment, which investigators said was caused by a broken axle.

Three days after the accident, out of concern of a possible explosion, authorities decided to release and burn vinyl chloride inside five tanker cars, sending hydrogen chloride and the toxic gas phosgene, used during World War I battles, into the air.

Vinyl chloride is a colorless, industrially produced gas that burns easily and is used primarily in the manufacture of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe and other products, according to the National Cancer Institute. It also is a byproduct of cigarette smoke.

Environmental regulators have been monitoring the air and water in surrounding communities and have said that so far, the air quality remains safe and drinking water supplies have not been affected.

But some residents have complained about headaches and feeling sick since the derailment.

On social media and in news reports, some said that fish and frogs were dying in local streams.

Kirk Kollar of the Ohio EPA said the levels of toxic chemicals observed in nearby waterways "were immediately toxic to fish", Newsweek reported.

Some shared images of dead animals or said they smelled chemical odors around town. The arrest of a reporter during a news conference about the derailment led to online criticism of the law enforcement response.

Melissa Henry, an East Palestine resident, said that she and her two boys had stayed with her parents for nearly five days while waiting for the derailment to be cleaned up. She left on Saturday before the mandatory evacuations were ordered because her youngest son's "eyes turned red as tomato and he was coughing a lot", she said.

People speak at an assistance center, following a train derailment that forced people to evacuate from their homes, in New Waterford, Ohio, US, Feb 6, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

A town hall has been scheduled for Wednesday at 7 pm to allow residents to ask questions about the effects of the derailment, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway said in a press release Sunday.

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who spoke at a National Association of Counties Conference on Monday, received some criticism for not mentioning the Ohio derailment in a discussion about infrastructure.

A Norfolk Southern list of the cars that were involved in the derailment, and the products that they were carrying reveal several more toxic chemicals that were released into the air and soil after the crash, ABC News reported. Among the substances were ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene.

Contact with ethylhexyl acrylate, a carcinogen, can cause burning and skin and eye irritation; inhalation can irritate the nose and throat, and cause shortness of breath and coughing, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The toxins that burned in the wreckage had the potential to be deadly if officials did not evacuate the region, experts told ABC News last week.

Some of the toxins spilled into the Ohio River — a drinking water source for 5 million people and the largest tributary of the Mississippi River — near the north West Virginia panhandle, causing officials to shut down water production in the area and transfer to an alternate water source, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice told reporters on Feb 8.

On Feb 12, the US Environmental Protection Agency, after monitoring the air, said it had not detected contaminants at "levels of concern" in and around East Palestine, although residents may still smell odors, The New York Times reported.

Just after the derailment, about 1,500 to 2,000 residents in East Palestine were told to evacuate the area. Schools were closed, along with some roads.

On Feb 6, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine extended an evacuation order to include anyone in a 1-by-2-mile area surrounding East Palestine, including parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. On Feb 8, the governor's office said residents were permitted to return home.

"It raises all kinds of questions," DeWine told Fox & Friends last week when he was asked whether hazardous materials are too dangerous to transport by rail. "We've seen it up close and personal the last few days. This is a big, big deal."

Norfolk Southern offered residents who did not want to return home assistance with hotel expenses.

On Twitter, financial commentator @unusual_whales, which has 1.1 million followers, wrote of Norfolk Southern: "The $55 billion dollar company has offered the town $25,000, or $5/person, for the accident."

Agencies contributed to this story.

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