A massive amount of the industrial chemical vinyl chloride and other hazardous substances were released into the air and water earlier this month after a train derailment in eastern Ohio.
While the EPA is monitoring levels of toxins from the spill and says that current levels are not harmful, the health consequences of the event are unclear, and some people have reported that their animals have become sick or died since the derailment.
The chemicals being transported in the rail cars have already penetrated the environment. Authorities conducted a controlled burn to avoid a catastrophic explosion of vinyl chloride, a highly flammable poison.
That fire created a plume of smoke that likely released other chemicals in and around East Palestine, the town where the accident occurred.
“There are products of combustion, and no one knows what these are,” said Dr. Edward Boyer, professor of emergency medicine at the Ohio State University College of Medicine.
A member of Congress tweeted that 1 million pounds of vinyl chloride were on the train, although the specific size of the spill is still unclear.
“As with most environmental spills, it is difficult to determine the exact amount of material that has been released into the air, water, and soil,” James Lee, an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson, told us in an email.
For now, people are most concerned about the vinyl chloride. As of Feb. 16, 3,150 cubic yards of contaminated soil and 942,000 gallons of contaminants and contaminated liquid have been removed from the site, according to the Ohio EPA.
What is vinyl chloride?
This lab-made chemical is a common one used in making plastics, namely PVC for the ubiquitous pipes inside homes and buildings. It's a volatile organic compound, a group of chemicals that people are exposed to every day, whether it’s while standing at the gas pump, burning wood, or, especially, smoking or being exposed to cigarette smoke, said Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, director of the Ohio Department of Health, at a press conference on Tuesday.
Vinyl chloride exists in both gaseous and liquid forms, and has a “faint, sweet odor,” according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “When it’s a liquid, it’s extremely volatile, which means it goes from the liquid to the gaseous phase very rapidly,” Boyer said.
But that can be a double-edged sword.
“It’s good because it means it’s not going to persist at a site where a spill happens,” Boyer explained. “But it can dissolve in water and get into watersheds.”
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources reported at Tuesday’s press conference that about 3,500 small fish have died in nearby streams since the incident. The next day Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said that testing showed that the municipal water was safe to drink.
Taylor Holzer, 28, a nearby resident who rescues animals, told BuzzFeed News that salamanders and frogs have also perished. “Any animal that relies on that water is going to be impacted in some way,” said Holzer, who has posted about the accident on Instagram and TikTok.
Animal health effects
In addition to fish, many residents of the area, which lies near Pennsylvania, are reporting that animals have become sick or died, including a backyard flock of chickens who died at a property about 10 miles away from the accident.
But animal sickness doesn’t necessarily presage human illness, Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a medical toxicologist and interim executive director of the National Capital Poison Center, said.
“It’s important to remember that the toxicity of a substance depends on the dose as well as other factors, including the route of exposure, the size of the affected individual, and the length of exposure,” she said.
Vinyl chloride can be inhaled or enter through your skin, but it’s unlikely to be ingested, because it’s a gas at room temperature, according to the CDC.
Also, animals also have completely different biological systems, Boyer noted. Animal studies, albeit many of them old, have linked the compound to liver, lung, and kidney damage and may prevent blood clotting. In general, though, animals are exposed to much higher concentrations — a thousandfold or more — than humans would likely be exposed to, Boyer said.
Human health effects
“Most people can be around low levels of volatile organic compounds without really feeling health effects,” Vanderhoff said. “However, at higher levels, especially over longer periods of time, then we can have longer-term health effects.”
Most of what we know about long-term health effects in humans comes from decades-old descriptions in humans who worked with vinyl chloride in plastic production, Boyer said. At that time, workplace protection wasn’t the best.
Vinyl chloride is a known human carcinogen associated with highly specific types of cancer like hepatic angiosarcoma (a rare type of liver cancer) and liver problems other than cancer, Boyer said. It can also cause Raynaud’s syndrome, which is when your fingers become pale and painful when they get cold, and peripheral neuropathy, a type of nerve damage that can cause tingling in your hands and feet, he added.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says that workers should not be exposed to more than 1 ppm (parts per million) concentrations of vinyl chloride during any eight-hour period or greater than 5 ppm for more than 15 minutes. Nor should they have any direct skin contact with liquid vinyl chloride.
Boyer, however, doesn’t believe safe thresholds for vinyl chloride exposure have ever been determined.
Short-term health effects
During the short term, vinyl chloride gas can irritate your eyes, throat, and lungs, Johnson-Arbor said. Holzer, the Ohio resident, reported he has had headaches, chest tightness, and eye pain, while Jenna Giannios, who lives 12 miles away, told BuzzFeed News she had developed a chronic cough.
Inhaling very high levels of vinyl chloride can also cause neurological symptoms like dizziness, disorientation, even loss of consciousness, Johnson-Arbor said.
A 2012 train derailment in Paulsboro, New Jersey, released about 20,000 gallons of vinyl chloride. Hundreds of people went to local hospitals with complaints such as cough, dizziness, and lightheadedness, but most were discharged and there were no life-threatening conditions noted. Emergency workers also reported having headaches, cough, and trouble breathing.
Exposure so far
As of Feb. 16, the EPA said that “air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment.” The agency also hasn’t detected any contamination in the more than 500 houses surveyed. It’s not clear yet what effect the spill has had in the soil or water.
While officials were taking steps to ensure that rainfall did not wash more contaminants into waterways, it’s unlikely that rain itself would pose any risk, Johnson-Arbor said.
“These are volatile chemicals and the derailment happened two weeks ago, so I think it's unlikely that rain today would contain any toxins related to the derailment and spill," Johnson-Arbor said.
The EPA report suggests that vinyl chloride and the other chemicals that spilled are not present in the air in high enough amounts to warrant concern for humans. However, the fact that so many animals and fish have been sickened or died may be a cause for concern, Johnson-Arbor said. More testing of nearby lakes and rivers needs to be conducted, she added.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Vanderhoff said, “We have taken every step possible to assure that people’s safety is first and foremost. We have first made sure we are providing clean air and are now actively working to assure that people for the long term have clean water.”
Anyone with concerning signs or symptoms should contact the National Capital Poison Center at www.poison.org or by phone at 1-800-222-1222. Local residents who are experiencing anxiety and stress can call the Ohio Careline at 1-800-720-9616 to receive free, confidential support from a trained specialist.