In the time since the derailment, citizens have questioned the safety of their environment, the safety of their water, and their health in the wake of what some experts are calling potentially the worst ecological disaster in American history. Experts have speculated about the nature of the pollution in the waterways, how far it has traveled across the country both in the air and water, and what long-term risks the chemicals pose to the environment.
- Daniel Joseph Edwards, MS
- Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, medical toxicologist and co-medical director of the National Capital Poison Center
- Suzan M. Walters, PhD, epidemiology researcher. She is an assistant professor in the division of epidemiology in the department of population health at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and an affiliated researcher at the center for drug use and HIV/HCV research at New York University (NYU)
Unfortunately, the current state of the disaster offers a hefty supply of questions but remains short on answers.
Still, there is some information we can glean about what this means, how this could affect the health and safety of the people who live there, and the implications of the impact on the environment. We talked to entomologists and a medical toxicologist to get an idea of what is going on, what to do, and where to go from here.
What is bad about pollutants like vinyl chloride?
In the Northfolk Southern train derailment, a few different toxic chemicals were released into the air, soil, and water both during the derailment and the "controlled burn." One of the most prominently highlighted pollutants was the man-made chemical used to develop plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe known as "vinyl chloride."
While vinyl chloride was previously used as a propellant in consumer products like hairspray and spray paint, the most common use of vinyl chloride is now PVC.
"Vinyl chloride exists as a gas at room temperature, although it's typically transported under pressurized conditions in liquid form. When vinyl chloride liquid or gas is released into the environment, it can contaminate the soil, water, and air," says Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, FACEP, FUHM, FACMT, medical toxicologist, co-medical director, and interim executive director of the National Capital Poison Center. "Fortunately, vinyl chloride is a volatile gas, so it dissipates from the air and water within days, but it can seep into the soil and contaminate the groundwater."
What risk does the vinyl chloride in Ohio pose to the environment?
According to the World Health Organization, vinyl chloride "is heavier than air and can spread over the ground, creating an exposure long distances away from the original source." So, although Ohio's governor Mike DeWine, was encouraged by the fact that the gas had dissipated from the area surrounding East Palestine, much concern about the pollutant has turned to its presence in waterways and soil. Some of the bigger, more concerning questions are whether or not the pollutant will linger in riverbeds and waterways for an indefinite amount of time.
Dr. Johnson-Arbor says, "Vinyl chloride tends to volatilize and evaporate when it enters the water, so it's unlikely that a significant amount of it would settle into riverbeds," which could offer a hope that the pollutant is not necessarily here to stay in the waterways. However, not enough is known yet about the nature of the pollution and the other chemicals released.
What health risks from vinyl chloride are concerning?
Vinyl chloride is a known carcinogen, so it poses a threat to public health and the surrounding ecosystems. It is also unclear how far-reaching this pollution will ultimately be, but environmentalists and concerned citizens alike have pointed out that the contaminated waterways connect to the Ohio River, which feeds into numerous rivers across the central United States, into the Mississippi, and down through to the Gulf of Mexico.
Videos of dead fish floating on the surface of streams miles downriver from East Palestine have circulated on TikTok and made it onto local news stations. Residents have been warned to be aware of the water quality and to avoid drinking it if it has a usual odor or visual appearance. One way some citizens are mitigating this concern is by contacting their water companies and asking them about the testing and evaluation processes of their water, and the source of their water.
"In the field of aquatic ecology, we assess water quality via three types of insects. We use these because they are super sensitive to pollutants. If I go to a stream, I can assess the population of certain populations of insects. If there are certain populations and species present– I know that that water quality is healthy," says Daniel Joseph Edwards, MS, an aquatic ecologist and entomologist at Louisiana Tech University whose research specializes in aquatic insect communities. "If I go to a stream and those species aren't present, we need to assess what's wrong with the water because something is wrong. So, seeing the fact that the fish are dead is alarming. Fish being dead is a red flag; they are bigger than bugs and can handle bigger toxins. Bioaccumulation amongst the top predators or higher in the food chain often can mean that everything below it has been wiped out."
When it comes to the health of people, Dr. Johnson-Arbor says, "The adverse health effects of vinyl chloride have been well-known since the 1970s. People who breathe in vinyl chloride gas on a short-term basis can experience irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, coughing, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal symptoms, and headaches. Vinyl chloride is also associated with cancer development, particularly live cancer, in people who are exposed to the chemical for many years."
What can people do in the aftermath of this disaster to stay safe?
Though the chemicals are no longer being released into the air, there are still concerns about how these pollutants will impact the broader environment. Unfortunately, wearing a mask does not mitigate exposure to vinyl chloride, says Edwards, and vinyl chloride cannot be boiled out of water that is potentially contaminated. So, the best way to stay safe is to reduce exposure to the chemical as much as possible, he says.
Avoiding the pollutant is not an option for everyone, though, says Suzan M. Walters, PhD, a research assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at the School of Global Public Health at New York University. The luxury of evacuating, relocating, staying elsewhere during a disaster, and even buying bottled water is not something everyone can do. A look at Flint, Michigan's water crisis or the disproportionate effect natural disasters like hurricanes and floods have on communities are good examples of this. Recommending evacuation without resources for support is simply not enough, she says.
It's also necessary for the government to keep a watchful eye on supply chain management and make sure that derailments like this can be prevented, says Walters. In fact, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered Northfolk Southern to clear any debris and pollutants released into the environment or suffer financial and potentially legal consequences.
How can you be prepared in the event of an environmental disaster?
In an environmental disaster, it's important to protect yourself, your family, and your pets from exposure to the chemicals released. It's best to rely on emergency responders for information on whether to shelter in place, evacuate, or proceed with another action. In general, if a chemical spill occurs outdoors, stay away from the affected area to reduce your chances of exposure.
FEMA recommends staying at least one half-mile away from any chemical exposure. If you're outside, try to remain at a higher elevation (uphill) if possible, as many chemicals (such as vinyl chloride) are heavier than air and will settle closer to the ground, says Dr. Johnson-Arbor. This is important for children and pets as well since they are smaller than adults and are closer to the ground where the chemicals may settle. Position yourself upwind from the disaster to avoid having the wind blow chemicals downwind in your direction. It's also a good idea to stay upstream from any rivers or lakes that could be carrying potentially dangerous chemicals, she adds.
Poison Control is a great resource for understanding potential exposure symptoms, including from vinyl chloride, says Dr. Johnson-Arbor. If you live in the affected area and still have questions about signs and symptoms related to exposure, you can contact Poison Control for advice. There are two ways to contact Poison Control in the United States: online at www.poison.org or by phone at 1-800-222-1222. Both options are free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day.
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