An environmental disaster akin to an oil spill occurred in East Palestine, OH on Feb. 3, 2023. Carcinogenic chemicals were released into the surrounding environment when a train belonging to Norfolk Southern, a commercial transportation company, derailed earlier this month. Of the 38 cars derailed, 11 contained potentially toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol, and ethylhexyl acrylate. Residents of the town were evacuated for two days, returning to their homes only after a survey of the chemical content within the town’s surrounding atmosphere and waterways. Despite the precautions, many residents began to feel ill shortly after their return, prompting controversy about how effectively the situation has been handled.
Vinyl chloride is a carcinogen and flammable gas used for polyvinyl chloride plastic, electronics, and construction materials. Exposure to this chemical induces disorientation, nausea, drowsiness, and in extreme cases a rare kind of liver cancer. Ethylene glycol and ethylhexyl acrylate exposure at high levels can cause a sore throat and nausea. Ethylhexyl acrylate is a liquid used to create plastics and polymers, and ethylene glycol is a synthetic compound used for antifreeze, brake fluid, paint, and ink. Butyl acrylate is a liquid used in coatings, resins, and plastics, and exposure causes rashes and breathing difficulties. A universal symptom of exposure to these chemicals is irritation to the eyes and skin; in regards to vinyl chloride, long-term exposure causes cancer. Due to the highly combustible nature of some of these chemicals, local governmental agencies ordered a controlled burn of the flammable chemicals to avoid an explosion. In the week following this incident, the sparsely covered event was largely associated with huge plumes of thick, gray smoke; these hellish photographs were the result of these chemical burns.
Perhaps the most pressing issue is that of soil infiltration. It will take time for these chemicals to seep into underground water sources, thus wells and municipal water reserves that are clean now could become unsafe in the coming weeks. Vinyl chloride is in the spotlight, as it poses the largest threat to the health of East Palestine residents. Able to exist in both liquid and gaseous forms, the chemical threatens subterranean water supplies–and in cases of high heat, such as a shower, vinyl chloride present in water could become heated enough to contaminate the air. As of now, EPA analysis reports that the vinyl chloride present in the atmosphere of over 550 surveyed homes is at an unconcerning level, though it should remain heavily monitored given the versatility of the chemical.
For about a week the situation was relatively uncovered despite its magnitude, seemingly ignored by the media and other involved organizations. On Wednesday, Feb. 15, East Palestine residents expected to meet with Norfolk Southern representatives in a town hall meeting. No one from Norfolk Southern showed, infuriating the townspeople. President Biden traveled to Ukraine instead of East Palestine, an action which conservatives have been quick to criticize. Namely, President Donald Trump. On Wednesday, Feb. 22, former President Trump addressed the town, praising himself for making an appearance while Biden had not. Criticizing Biden, Trump boasted his relationship with working people, stressing the need for “action and results.” Ironically, the Trump Administration reversed regulations that required more powerful brakes for trains carrying toxic chemicals. Although the train derailed in this situation was designated a mixed-freight train, not a high-hazard-flammable train, the reversed regulations directly contrast with Trump’s message to the people. His actions convey the opinion of many Republican politicians: deregulation, but intensive governmental aid in the wake of such a disaster as this one. Democrats, on the other hand, are advocating for regulatory policy to increase safety measures that could prevent such an accident.
While some conservative media outlets and politicians have vilified the Biden administration for inaction, these claims are largely based on the fact that Biden has not visited East Palestine himself. In actuality, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Department of Transportation have been actively working to ensure the disaster is managed. As of Monday, Feb. 20, the EPA has announced that they are taking full charge in the cleanup process, promising increasingly informative reports on the chemical content of the water, soil, and atmosphere surrounding the chemical leak. Many argue that both policy and governmental aid are critical in addressing future disasters, and that our health (and our planet’s) is more important than subsidizing corporate negligence through deregulation.