A Chemical Nightmare

A train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, leads to millions of pounds of spilled chemicals


Photo courtesy commons.wikipedia.org

A photo taken of the Northfolk Southern train after derailment.

Andy Ratterree, Viking Voices Co-Editor

On Feb. 3, 2023, a Northfolk Southern freight train passing through East Palestine, Ohio, was derailed due to a mechanical issue and spilled millions of pounds of a toxic chemical into the countryside. Residents near the chemical spill were quickly evacuated away from the contaminated area and given proper treatment. The people of East Palestine were left confused and scared.

Sam Van Hyning (11) has studied the pollution spill in AP Environmental Science.

“I think the importance lies not in the spill itself, but the government response and cleanup. Even when toxic chemicals are still being released into the East Palestine are the governor of Ohio called for residents to return to their homes, which I believe calls into question the commitment of these institutions to truly protect the environment and those who live in it,” Van Hyning said.

The chemical that was spilled, vinyl chloride, is mainly used to make PVC pipes and other plastic consumer products but is very toxic to humans when inhaled. Unfortunately, within hours the city’s water and air had been tainted with the deadly chemical, and residents of the city had reported multiple health issues including respiratory problems and skin ailments.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, in high doses vinyl chloride will cause damage to the nervous system, changes in the immune system and a decrease in bone strength. Exposure to this chemical also increases a person’s chance of developing several types of cancer. Along with its toxicity, vinyl chloride is a very flammable gas and because of the amount of it around the train cars, it was a concern that the train cars were likely to explode.

AP Environmental Science student Liya Mathew (11) has been studying the pollution spill in class.

“The oil spill in East Palestine can lead to negative effects on the surrounding environment and humans who were exposed. These effects include the contamination of nearby water that are potential drinking water sources. and the exposure to VOCS (Volatile Organic Compounds). I think that this incident spreads awareness to the extent of damage that oil spills can lead to,” Mathew said.

People within a two-mile zone were recommended to evacuate again by local officials. It had been decided that a controlled burn was the safest and quickest way to dissipate the gas from the area. Vinyl chloride was then released into the air and ignited, producing a large smoky plume above the town. On Feb. 8, five days after the incident, residents were allowed to return to their homes. According to the Washington Post, some officials in East Palestine still doubt that burning the gas was the safest option for the city. These questions also raise questions of how the United States oversees trains carrying hazardous or toxic material.

Teagan McEnroe (10), a member of Environthon, is familiar with the chemical spill.

“The chemical spill will cause major effects on the water and the soils in the area. It will make it unsafe to drink water and especially because we are not 100% certain what effects the chemicals can have on the environment,” McEnroe said.