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Ohio | 5 questions to understand the short and long-term consequences of an environmental disaster | United States | Environmental Pollution | WORLD

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Headaches and lingering chemical odors from a burning 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 for the environmental disaster during a press conference on February 14, 2023.

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Nearly a dozen wagons carrying chemical products, including vinyl chloridea carcinogen, derailed on the night of February 3, 2023, and the fire generated at the site released acrid black smoke.

Authorities said they had examined more than 400 nearby homes for contamination and were tracing a plume of spilled chemicals that they killed 3,500 fish in the creeks and reached the Ohio River.

However, the slow release of information after the derailment has left many unanswered questions about the risks and long-term impact. We asked five questions about chemical emissions to Andrew Wheltonan environmental engineer who investigates chemical hazards during disasters.

Let's start with what was in the train cars. What are the chemicals of greatest concern to human health and the environment in the long term, and what is known so far about the impact?

The main concerns now are the contamination of homes, soil and water, mainly by volatile organic compounds and semi-volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs and VOCs.

The train had almost a dozen cars with vinyl chloride and other materials, such as ethylhexyl acrylate and butyl acrylate. These chemicals have different levels of toxicity and different fates in soil and groundwater.

Authorities estimate that 3,500 fish of 12 different species died in nearby waterways as a result of the derailment.  (Reuters)

Authorities estimate that 3,500 fish of 12 different species died in nearby waterways as a result of the derailment. (Reuters)

Authorities have detected some of those chemicals in the nearby waterway and airborne particles from the fire. But so far, the fate of many of the chemicals is unknown.

A variety of other materials were also released, but discussion of those chemicals has been limited.

State authorities revealed that a plume of pollution released into the nearby creek had reached the Ohio River. Other cities get their drinking water from the river and have been warned about the risk.

The further downstream this plume moves, the less concentrated the chemical will be in the water, posing less of a risk.

In the long term, the greatest risk is closer to the derailment site. And again, there is limited information about which chemicals are present, or were created through chemical reactions during the fire.



It is not yet clear how much went into storm drains, was discharged into streams, or was deposited at the bottom of waterways.

There was also a large amount of particulate matter burned. Black smoke is a clear indication. It is not clear how much was diluted in the air or fell to the ground.

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

The heavier the chemical, the slower it breaks down and the more likely it is to stick to the ground. These compounds can remain for years if no action is taken.

After the Kalamazoo River pipeline ruptured in Michigan in 2010, the US Environmental Protection Agency dug up a tributary where the oil settled. We have also seen in oil spills off the coast of Alaska and Alabama that chemicals from oil can find their way into the ground if steps are not taken to remediate.

The long-term impact in Ohio will depend in part on the speed and depth of the cleanup.

If heavily contaminated soils and liquids are excavated and removed, long-term impacts can be reduced. But the longer removal takes, the further the contamination can spread. It's in everyone's best interest to clean this up as soon as possible and before it rains in the region.



Booms have been deployed in a nearby stream to capture chemicals. Air removal devices have been deployed to remove chemicals from waterways.

Air stripping causes light chemicals to leave the water and enter the air. This is a common treatment technique and was used after a 2015 oil spill in the Yellowstone River near Glendive, Montana.

At the Ohio derailment site, workers are already removing contaminated soil to a depth of up to around 2 meters near where the railcars burned.

Some of the train cars were intentionally drained and the chemicals set on fire to remove them. That fire had thick black smoke. What does that tell you about the chemicals and the long-term risks?

Incineration is one way to dispose of hazardous chemicals, but incomplete chemical destruction creates a large number of byproducts. Chemicals can be destroyed when heated to extremely high temperatures, so they burn off completely.

Environmental disaster in Ohio

Environmental disaster in Ohio

The column of black smoke you saw on TV was incomplete combustion. A number of other chemicals were created. Officials don't necessarily know what they were or where they went until they assess it.

We know ash can pose health risks, so we test inside homes after wildfires where structures burn.

This is one reason the state health director told residents with private wells near and downwind of the derailment to use bottled water until their wells can be tested.

The EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) has been evaluating homes near the derailment for indoor air quality issues. How do these chemicals get into homes and what happens to them indoors?

The houses are not airtight and sometimes dust and other materials enter. It can be through an open door or a window sill. Sometimes people track it down.



So far, the EPA has not reported evidence of elevated levels of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride in the approximately 400 homes tested. But total transparency has been lacking. Just because an agency is testing doesn't mean it's testing what it needs to test.

Media reports speak of four or five chemicals, but the Norfolk Southern manifesto also lists a host of other materials in tanks that burned. All of these materials potentially create hundreds to thousands of VOCs and SVOCs.

Are government officials testing everything they should?

People in the community have reported headaches, which can be caused by VOCs and other chemicals. It is understandable that they are concerned.

Federal and Ohio authorities need to better communicate what they are doing, why, and what they plan to do. It is not clear what questions they are trying to answer. For a disaster of this magnitude, very little information about testing has been shared.

In the absence of this transparency, misinformation is filling that void. From a homeowner's perspective, it's hard to understand the true risk if data isn't shared.

*Andrew J. Whelton is Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Ecological Engineering, Director of the Healthy Plumbing Consortium and Center for Plumbing Safety, Purdue University, United States.

More than 6 years of experience in Digital Journalism. I write on political and tech topics. Follow for regular updates of country, foreign and tech news.

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