East Palestine train derailment spread 'hazardous' pollution to 16 states: Study

ByLeah Sarnoff ABCNews logo
Thursday, June 20, 2024

The destruction from a massive train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, spread far beyond the initial wreckage site, spewing "hazardous" pollution across 16 states, according to a newly released study.

On Feb. 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine -- a village on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania -- sending toxic chemicals into the air, soil, creeks and lakes in the region, according to the study published in Environmental Research Letters on Wednesday.

In total, the pollution from the wreckage and subsequent controlled burn of several of the train's cars spread over 16 states in the Midwest, Northeast and Southern U.S., reaching 540,000 square miles or 14% of the U.S. land area, according to the study.

Researchers estimate that 110 million residents, or one-third of the nation's population, were impacted by pollution.

Eleven of the derailed cars were transporting hazardous materials, five of which contained vinyl chloride, a highly volatile colorless gas produced for commercial uses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes for Health, at the time.

Several cars were also carrying ethyl acrylate and isobutylene, which are considered to be very toxic and possibly carcinogenic, the agencies reported.

Three days after the initial crash, officials authorized an hours-long controlled release and burn of vinyl chloride in five derailed tanker cars, "due to fear of an explosion of one or all of these cars," according to the study, noting, the cars were carrying 115,580 gallons of the flammable gas.

A large ball of fire and a plume of black smoke filled with contaminants could be seen billowing out from the derailment site as the controlled burn took place. This prompted concerns from residents about the potential negative health effects of the burn.

In the study published Wednesday, researchers analyzed rain and snow water samples collected at 260 sites from surrounding states the week of the derailment (Jan. 31) and the week after (Feb 14).

"Our measurements revealed a large areal impact from the Midwest through the Northeast and likely Canada, and perhaps as far south as North Carolina," according to the study.

Researchers discovered that "exceptionally elevated levels" of Chloride and pH levels were found in northern Pennsylvania and along the U.S.-Canada border, compared to historic data.

Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and almost every site in New York were flagged as having soot ash and dirt in the samples, according to the study.

Pollutants in the air reached southern states including Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, according to the study.

Researchers found that 19 sites had at least one chemical compound in the 99th percentile, while eight sites had four or more compounds in the 99th percentile.

"The impacts of the fire were larger in scale and scope than the initial predictions, and likely due to the uplift from the fire itself entraining pollutants into the atmosphere," researchers wrote.

Following the derailment, Dr. Erin Haynes, chair of the University of Kentucky's Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health, surveyed approximately 400 adults in the East Palestine area about their health effects after the accident.

Haynes found that three out of four residents suffered health impacts after the derailment and over half of the residents reported their conditions continued through fall of 2023.

Nose and eye irritation, coughing and wheezing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes and feeling weak and tired were among the symptoms reported, according to Haynes.

In April 2024, Norfolk Southern agreed to a $600 million settlement to resolve a class action lawsuit related to the train derailment.

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