On February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in an Eastern Ohio village and caught fire. Thousands of residents living near it (in Ohio and Pennsylvania) were told to evacuate. And while the all-clear to return has been given, the impact is still being felt.
The toxic train derailment has negatively impacted those who live and work near East Palestine and local wildlife. The derailment did not cause human deaths, but the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said the spill had affected nearly 8 miles of stream and killed more than 43,000 animals.2 Homeowners in the affected area of Ohio are now left worrying about their health and property value.
Because of this, in mid-March, Ohio’s attorney general filed a 58-count lawsuit against the train company, accusing it of violating state and federal environmental laws.1
Ohio Train Derailment Timeline
On February 3, around 9:00 p.m., a Norfolk Southern train was on its way from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, when 38 of its 150 cars derailed in East Palestine — a village of 4,700 people.
The derailment caused a fire to break out, damaging 12 more cars. Around 1,500 to 2,000 residents living near the area were told to evacuate.
Several railcars burned for two more days while emergency crews conducted controlled burns. Authorities released toxic materials from the five tankers, bringing the contents to a trench to burn them off.
Chemicals and Hazardous Materials Involved in the Ohio Train Derailment
On February 10, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told Norfolk Southern that about 20 of its rail cars had been carrying hazardous materials that were then released into the air, surface soil, and surface waters.
The five main chemicals identified were:
- Vinyl chloride: This known carcinogen was the biggest concern. Vinyl chloride is a colorless, flammable gas that creates polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.
- Butyl acrylate: This colorless liquid has a fruity odor and creates various plastic products, polymers, coatings, and resins.
- Isobutylene: A colorless gas that smells faintly of petroleum
- Ethylhexyl acrylate: A colorless liquid that’s a common ingredient in plastics and polymers and can potentially cause cancer.
- Ethylene glycol: A synthetic compound used in antifreeze, ink, paint, and hydraulic brake fluid.
Emergency Response and Evacuation
When the derailment initially happened on February 3, roughly 2,000 residents living in and around East Palestine were told to evacuate.
By February 6, residents on both sides of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border (in a 1-mile by 2-mile area around East Palestine) were ordered to evacuate by Governor Mike DeWine (R-OH) and Governor Josh Shapiro (D-PA).
Nearly 70 emergency agencies from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia mobilized to the area. East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway declared a state of emergency.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources said the chemical spill had affected nearly 8 miles of stream.
The EPA deployed air monitoring shortly after the derailment on February 4. By the 13, the EPA reported no longer detecting contaminants at “levels of concern” in and around East Palestine. However, it warned that residents may still smell odors from the site and urged those who experience any symptoms to contact their health providers.
By February 20, the EPA had screened 551 homes and reported no exceedances for residential air quality standards. It also monitored well water and urged residents with private wells to drink bottled water until tests showed well water was safe enough to drink.3
Cause of Derailment
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its first report on the accident on February 23, which indicated that the derailment was caused by a mechanical issue on one of the rail cars’ trucks.
The NTSB said the train’s crew had received an alert about an overheated wheel bearing just before the derailment and that an alarm went off just before it happened.
While the wheel bearing caused the derailment, the NTSB said an ongoing investigation would determine what caused the bearing failure and who or what is ultimately responsible.
At a news conference in Washington D.C., NTSB Chair Jennifer L. Homendy said the event was “100 percent preventable.”4 However, Homendy said the investigation had not found any wrongdoing on the part of the train crew.
Environmental Impacts on Air, Soil, and Water Supply
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) originally estimated that the chemical spill killed 3,500 small fish across a 7.5-mile stream.
However, by February 23, ODNR Director Mary Mertz stated that the derailment potentially killed more than 43,000 fish, crustaceans, amphibians, and other marine animals.
Residents as far as 10 miles from the derailment site have reported sick and dying animals around the area, including some pets and farm animals.5
Burning of Gas
The EPA said about 20 rail cars carried hazardous materials, but environmentalists are most concerned about two in particular: vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate.
Toxicology experts told the New York Times that burning vinyl chloride could produce dioxins known to cause cancer, infertility, type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and immune disorders.
“Vinyl chloride [is] highly carcinogenic,” FGCU Professor Don Duke told WINK-TV.6 “It’s highly flammable. And it’s very mobile in the environment. So when it reaches the aquatic environment, groundwater or surface water, it moves very quickly.”
Duke said the chemicals would disperse more quickly in the air, but soil and water would stay contaminated much longer.
Material from the crash was observed in storm drains and detected in samples from Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, North Fork Little Beaver Creek, Little Beaver Creek, and the Ohio River.
Hazardous waste — including contaminated soil and water — was promptly removed from the train derailment site. But where it moved caused an issue.
According to CNN, Texas and Michigan officials complained that they did not receive a warning that the hazardous waste would be brought to their states for disposal. About 2 million gallons of firefighting water from the train derailment site were expected to be disposed of in Harris County, Texas. Meanwhile, contaminated soil from the derailment site was being taken to the U.S. Ecology Wayne Disposal in Belleville, Michigan.
The EPA released a statement to CNN saying that the agency had ordered Norfolk Southern to stop its hazardous waste shipments until it could review the disposal plans.
“EPA will ensure that all waste is disposed of in a safe and lawful manner at EPA-certified facilities to prevent further release of hazardous substances and impacts to communities,” the EPA said in a statement to CNN in late February.
Health Concerns and Future Housing Issues for Ohio Homeowners
Government officials and agencies have said it’s safe for residents to return to the area. While the East Palestine incident was a great environmental concern, media outlets say it’s far from disasters like Chernobyl, the BP oil spill, or the lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan.
That’s not to say there’s no potential for health and future housing issues for Ohio and West Pennsylvania homeowners.
Reported Health Concerns
It’s too early to gauge what the long-term health risks could be. And scientists don’t know what happens when people are exposed to a combination of chemicals like vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, according to a chemist at Colorado State University.
“It’s really hard to know how those different chemicals interact and how your body reacts,” Farmer told Vox Media.7
According to the New York Times, many Ohio residents reported coughs, rashes, headaches, and vomiting following the incident. Local doctors were booked for weeks but told the media that they weren’t equipped to diagnose chemical poisoning, so they are simply treating symptoms with ibuprofen and ointment.
Housing Crisis and Land Destruction
Another big side effect of the train derailment is the potential loss of property value. The incident has reportedly caused potential East Palestine homebuyers to pull out of their closing agreements, according to Pittsburgh NPR station WESA.
One homeowner told WESA that they put their home on the market six weeks before the derailment and had several interested families before the incident but none since. Norfolk Southern reportedly offered them a $1,000 inconvenience check.8
Home sales in East Palestine will likely suffer “until remediation is successful,” said Michael Stevens, board president for the Youngstown Columbiana Association of Realtors, in a newspaper interview with the Canton Rep.
Resources for Victims Affected by the Ohio Train Derailment
- Name: Norfolk Southern Assistance Center
- How it can help: Residents evacuated or impacted by the derailment can request assistance with lodging, food, clothing, gas, childcare, laundry, pet care, and more.
- Contact information: nsmakingitright.com, 800-230-7049 (24hr)
- Name: EPA Community Welcome Center in East Palestine
- How it can help: Information and supply resource center.
- Contact information: 1-800-985-5990
- Name: National Disaster Distress Helpline
- How it can help: Immediate crisis counseling.
- Contact information: 1-800-985-5990
- Name: The Salvation Army
- How it can help: Provide food, water, bathing supplies, and other care.
- Contact information: 330-385-2086 (East Liverpool) 330-332-5624 (Salem)
- Name: The Wellness Company of Boca Raton, Florida
- How it can help: Offering free consultations with a licensed doctor or medical provider via its website.
- Contact information: bocachiropractor.com
Here are the phone numbers for authorities who assist residents who live within the East Palestine train derailment evacuation zone.
- Norfolk Southern Family Assistance: 1-800-230-7049
- Home Air Screening: 330-849-3913
- Ohio EPA: 614-644-2160
- East Palestine Information Line: 866-361-0526
- Poison Control Center Incident Hotline: 1-877-603-0170 (made up of Pittsburgh and Ohio poison centers)
Ways the Community Can Help
- Visit redcross.org/volunteer for more information about how to help people during their time of need.
- Donate or volunteer with the Salvation Army of Northeast Ohio by calling (216) 623-7449 or visiting SalvationArmyOhio.org.
- Check out this list of verified fundraisers for Ohioans affected by the derailment on GoFundMe.
Health Symptoms to Watch Out For
If you live within 2 miles of the train derailment and experience any ill symptoms, you should seek the advice of a medical professional.
Below we’ll list the common chemical exposure symptoms of the five hazardous chemicals released due to the train derailment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Vinyl chloride exposure symptoms: Drowsiness, disorientation, numbness, tingling of the extremities, nausea, and irritation to the eyes and skin.9
- Butyl acrylate exposure symptoms: Irritation to the eyes and skin, rashes, upper respiratory issues, and breathing difficulties.10
- Isobutylene exposure symptoms: Irritation to the eyes and skin, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, or burning in the mouth, throat, or chest.11
- Ethylhexyl acrylate exposure symptoms: irritation to the eyes and skin, respiratory issues, sore throat, nausea.12
- Ethylene glycol exposure symptoms: Central nervous system depression, intoxication, euphoria, stupor, respiratory issues, nausea, and vomiting. In severe cases, exposure can result in coma, loss of reflexes, seizure and irritation of tissues lining the brain.13
The Pennsylvania Department of Health suggests that those within 2 miles of the derailment area stay vigilant in looking out for these symptoms.14
Cleaning Tips for Homes Affected By Ohio Derailment
The Environmental Protection Agency has mandated the local government to clean and test homes for chemicals before allowing residents to return home. Once given the all-clear, you should still take extra precautions to keep yourself safe by following the cleaning tips below.
“I would clean the hell out of my house,” chemist Delphine Farmer told Vox Media. “Cleaning is a bit of a pain, but it can actually work really well.”15
Tip #1: Wipe Down All Hard Surfaces
You should clean your house thoroughly, including wiping down your counters, floors and walls, and places you might not think of wiping down during regular cleaning. You also need to wash tools for preparing or eating food, children’s toys, light switches, remotes, and anything frequently touched.
It’s especially important to clean your window screens and windows. Clean each item thoroughly with soap and water or appropriate cleaning products for each surface.
Tip #2: Wash Clothes, Rugs, Drapes, and Bedding
Launder everything that you’re able to according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Use the warmest appropriate water setting and dry items completely, and clean out clothing hampers or laundry baskets that hold the dirty items.
Tip #3: Vacuum Carpets, Rugs, and Floors
Open your windows before vacuuming carpets and rugs to ensure proper ventilation. Safely dispose of the dirt as soon as you are finished.
If you want professional chemical cleaning services from the EPA, visit its website here.