The images from East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month are frightening. They show a giant tower of thick, black smoke rising from a train wreck and expanding into the horizon, as if a bomb went off.
The description of what happened isn’t much less worrying: A large train derailed that was carrying hazardous chemicals, and some of them leaked into the air, water, and soil. To avert an explosion, authorities purposefully detonated a chemical called vinyl chloride, which caused the dark plume.
It looks bad. It sounds bad. So, how bad is it really?
The East Palestine incident is not an environmental disaster on the scale of Chernobyl, the BP oil spill, or the lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan — events that had very clear and devastating impacts on human health and wildlife. Some initial testing from the Environmental Protection Agency in East Palestine suggests that the air is safe to breathe and the municipal water is safe to drink.
There doesn’t seem to be much immediate danger.
What is concerning is that the specific risks of the spill are unknown, including the long-term threat. That’s partly because these chemicals are unusual; scientists don’t fully understand what level of exposure to vinyl chloride and other compounds spewed from the train is safe, or how they interact with each other. Plus, many of the sensors used to measure concentrations of them are not very sensitive, and even small quantities could harm people, experts say.
So where does that leave residents of East Palestine?
The dangerous chemicals that spilled from the train
The disaster in East Palestine, a town of roughly 4,700, was caused by a train wreck two weeks ago. While traveling east in Ohio not far from Pittsburgh, 38 cars in a freight train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed. Eleven of them contained hazardous chemicals, some of which spilled onto the ground and into waterways or were burned off by authorities.
These aren’t natural substances like what you’d find at an oil spill but synthetic compounds made by the chemical industry, said Delphine Farmer, a chemist at Colorado State University. Five of the derailed cars, for example, carried vinyl chloride, a colorless gas that’s used to make PVC pipe. Another contained butyl acrylate, a clear liquid used to make glue, paint, and other products.
Scientists know that these chemicals can harm humans and wildlife. Exposure to vinyl chloride can cause a range of symptoms including headaches and, with high exposure, a rare form of liver cancer. What’s more is that when the gas is burned — as it was, producing the dramatic plume from the images — vinyl chloride releases hydrogen chloride and phosgene, two other harmful chemicals, as well as a number of other toxic combustion compounds. Butyl acrylate, meanwhile, can cause a range of respiratory ailments.
A number of residents reported headaches, respiratory problems, and dizziness in the days after the wreck, yet understanding the specific risks associated with this disaster is a challenge, Farmer said. For one, it’s not clear how much of the chemicals actually spilled into the environment. More importantly, these chemicals aren’t easy to measure.
Why it’s still not clear whether the air and water are safe
The air in East Palestine today won’t land you in the ER, Farmer said. Monitoring by health officials has not detected harmful levels of air pollutants from the wreck as of Friday, including vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride. “The great thing about outdoor air is the atmosphere is very large,” Farmer said. “Dilution is your friend.”
These chemicals also degrade in the environment, some in a matter of days, Farmer said. They’re not like “forever chemicals,” or PFAS, that can stick around for decades. “Over the next few days, the outdoor air should clear out and the indoor air should improve,” she said.
That’s the good news.
The challenge, however, is that many of the sensors used to measure air quality so far are not very sensitive, Farmer said. They’re good at identifying, say, a leak at a factory or the presence of chemical weapons, Farmer said, not at detecting trace amounts of airborne chemicals. This is a problem because even small amounts of some of these compounds could pose a threat to human health.
More concerning still, she said, is that scientists don’t really know what level of exposure is safe over the long term. These are strange compounds that aren’t well tested, Farmer added. (The Environmental Protection Agency said it will release more, higher-quality data on air quality soon.)
There’s better, more reliable information for water.
Health authorities are far more equipped to sample harmful chemicals in wells and streams compared to air, Farmer said, and tests so far have come back clean. “The municipal water wells are safe to drink,” Anne Vogel, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said in a press conference Thursday.
People in East Palestine who source water from private wells should still drink bottled water, according to health officials, until their wells have been tested.
Separately, there’s also a plume of butyl acrylate that leaked from the train floating down the Ohio River, authorities say. Testing suggests it’s now diluted enough that it’s not hazardous to humans, according to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s office. It’s not clear what effect the chemical spill will have on wildlife, though shortly after the wreck wildlife officials reported the death of roughly 3,500 fish.
Some experts are also concerned that authorities may not be testing for the full range of compounds that could harm humans. “It’s unclear what chemicals they’re testing for in comparison to what chemicals were generated and released,” said Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer at Purdue University. It’s not just the chemicals that leaked from the train that are potentially hazardous, he said, but also compounds produced by combustion. “I am concerned,” he said.
The long-term health risks
The long-term impacts of the spill will depend, in part, on how fast and thorough the clean-up is, Whelton has written. That’s what officials are doing now. Crews are digging out contaminated soils and damming fouled creeks, and removing pollutants from water. “If they don’t clean [the spill] up, it starts migrating,” Whelton said.
But regardless of the clean-up effort, it’s hard to say what residents might experience in the years to come. The exact level of exposure is unclear, as are the impacts of individual chemicals on human health, Farmer said. Scientists also don’t know what happens when people are exposed to a combination of chemicals like vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate.
“It’s really hard to know how those different chemicals interact and then how your body reacts,” Farmer said. “That’s why I think all the scientists are having a really hard time telling anybody what is going to happen long-term.” (To address health concerns, for at least the short term, the state is setting up a medical clinic in East Palestine.)
But what is clear is that the train wreck is not catastrophic, Farmer said. “We’re dealing with a lot of questions and a lot of uncertainty,” she said. “I know that’s very uncomfortable for people, but they should not feel that they are in the next Chernobyl. They are not living in Flint, Michigan. It’s just not on that scale.”
In other words, there’s no material or compound that’s causing severe health problems in a large group of people, or across a large region.
Fortunately, there are also very practical things that residents can do to reduce their risk, Farmer said. Clean your house thoroughly, she said, especially if you’re in the evacuation zone. Wipe down your counters, floors, and walls. Wash every piece of fabric including your clothes and sheets. Many of these chemicals are water-soluble, so they’ll disappear in the laundry. If the outdoors doesn’t smell bad, open all of your windows and doors.
“I would clean the hell out of my house,” Farmer said. “Cleaning is a bit of a pain, but it can actually work really well.”
Umair Irfan contributed reporting.