color photograph of an EPA agent wearing a bright yellow safety vest standing in a creek
EAST PALESTINE, OH - FEBRUARY 20: Ron Fodo, Ohio EPA Emergency Response, looks for signs of fish and also agitates the water in Leslie Run Creek to check for chemicals that have settled at the bottom following a train derailment that is causing environmental concerns on Feb. 20, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Swensen/Getty Images)

A month after a train derailment disaster in the town of East Palestine, Ohio, questions about the environmental impact of toxic chemicals remain unanswered. The train, which derailed after a wheel bearing overheated, was shipping at least six hazardous chemicals that leached into the environment. National attention on the train derailment has stirred a conversation about the influence the freight lobby has in Congress, where the industry has effectively written its own rules, and about federal agencies’ abilities to regulate hazardous chemicals and provide for their remediation when there is a spill. 

The response in East Palestine, a small town of fewer than 5,000 residents not far from the Pennsylvania border, has not only brought to light vulnerabilities in how hazardous chemicals are monitored, but also put center stage the frustrating reality that corporations often face few or no consequences for placing communities at risk. 

And while some officials, elected and within federal environmental agencies, have insisted that air and water are safe, residents have reported headaches, nausea, and rashes—all signs of low-level exposure to toxins. Other experts say there’s no reason to believe in the safety of the natural environment, given that, thus far, testing has been lackluster or non-existent

What happened on Feb. 3 

On Feb. 3, 38 freight cars on a train between Illinois and eastern Pennsylvania derailed, causing a fire that damaged another 12 cars. According to officials, the cause was a fire spark on a wheel bearing, causing bearings to heat up over 250 degrees above the ambient air temperatures. Three “hot-box” detectors recorded increasing temperatures of 38, 103, and 253 degrees above ambient temperatures, but Norfolk Southern, the company that owns the train that derailed, does not require train operators to stop and inspect bearings until they reach 170 degrees.

The train carried at least six hazardous chemicals, including vinyl chloride, which is used to make plastic products like PVC pipes. Vinyl chloride is unstable at high temperatures, meaning that the derailed car posed the risk of explosion, and on Feb. 6, Norfolk Southern decided to intentionally burn the vinyl chloride, which released phosgene, a toxic gas used as a weapon during WWI, and hydrogen chloride, a corrosive gas that can cause throat and lung irritation and death, into the environment. A plume of black smoke climbed into the air.

Surface water sampling from Feb. 8-13 showed elevated levels of butyl acrylate in Little Beaver Creek and the Ohio River. Butyl acrylate was one of the chemicals that was released during the train derailment and burning that took place over the course of a few days; it can cause eye and skin irritation, rashes, and difficulty breathing. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection detected low levels of butyl acrylate in the state’s section of the Ohio River at 2 parts per billion; the CDC considers 560 parts per billion hazardous.

But it’s what we don’t know about the environmental impact—and long-term health impacts to humans—that concern Monica Unseld, a doctorate researcher with a specialization in endocrine system-disrupting pollutants. 

According to Unseld, the Environmental Protection Agency, which is tasked with on-the-ground monitoring and environmental testing, doesn’t possess the capabilities for thorough pollutant testing. Some machines used by the EPA simply aren’t sensitive enough to detect low-levels of certain chemicals, like acrolein, in the environment. 

Third-party air sampling from Carnegie Mellon University and Texas A&M University detected elevated levels of acrolein, which can cause lung damage when inhaled over time, that rose above safety thresholds for long-term health concerns in East Palestine. Another sampling, like those of dioxins in the soil in East Palestine, was only ordered by the EPA after community groups and residents demanded the testing. 

And that’s a problem. While the EPA may be concerned with immediate, high-risk exposure to toxic chemicals, numerous long-term impacts on the environment and human health aren’t getting the concern they warrant.

Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, and damage to the endocrine and immune systems when absorbed for long periods. Dioxins can naturally occur in the environment, like from forest fires or volcanic explosions, but they can also be created by burning chlorinated chemicals like vinyl chloride. Once released into the air, dioxins take decades to break down and significantly elevate community risk. 

Unseld lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky, in a neighborhood that’s historically struggled with pollution from industrial plants along the Ohio River. Unseld said that residents have asked her if they should be buying bottled water. So far, the city has said that water is safe to drink

“You kind of have to look at the EPA and say, ‘Why are you here?’” Unseld said. She said that working in the environmental justice movement for years has shown her how slowly the EPA can move on issues that residents are most concerned about. “How can we get the EPA to do something? What do we need to say, and how do we need to package it?”

Because of the impact that these chemicals can have, they’re especially harmful to children due to their smaller size. While there is no evidence these chemicals directly affect the development of a fetus in utero, if chemical exposure causes health issues such as cancer for a pregnant person, it can impact the health of the fetus.

Part of the reason residents are concerned about low-dose exposure is that the impact on other animals is already apparent. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated Feb. 16 as few as 3,500 fish, amphibians and other aquatic animals were impacted near East Palestine, but state officials increased the estimate to 43,000 in a Feb. 23 update, and residents say they found thousands floating in and along the banks of the local waterways. Other residents told reporters that after the intentional burning of fuel, their pets and livestock became ill or died. The Ohio EPA insists that the drinking water in East Palestine, which comes from five wells 52-98 feet below the surface level and at least 1.4 miles away from the derailment site, is safe to drink.

Par for the course 

Environmental damage to the ground, water systems, and air occur regularly in the U.S. According to the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, there is a hazardous release of chemicals every two days for an annual average of 150 serious incidents at facilities that are part of the EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP); this does not include chemical fires, explosions, or other toxic releases at non-RMP facilities or incidents on rail or highway. 

Train accidents also happen frequently in the U.S.—about 1,704 yearly, or nearly five daily. According to the federal Bureau of Transportation, there have been 54,539 train derailments in the past three decades alone. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), an agency in the U.S. Department of Transportation, only investigates about 100 accidents, which include derailments, collisions, and other incidents, every year.

The federal government could have prevented many accidents—including the one in East Palestine—had it implemented any number of safeguards. But for decades, the freight and rail transportation industry has successfully lobbied against congressional approval of standards and mandates around staffing, braking systems, and hazardous material limits, just to name a few. While the FRA regulates and inspects freight and passenger rail travel, freight railroads are privately owned, and the FRA currently does not monitor the active transportation of potential pollutants on train cars. 

Some say that the lack of regulations and active oversight is due to the industry’s influence on elected officials. According to The New Republic, 75% of Norfolk Southern’s lobbyists held government positions before their private work, including as senators. In the past decade, Norfolk Southern and other industry groups like the Association of American Railroads spent millions to defeat a regulation that would have updated freight braking systems. The FRA-proposed legislation would have reduced the number of cars that derail and release toxins by a fifth and cost the industry $439 million over 20 years

According to The Lever, the influence of the railroad industry is so great in Ohio that some federal prosecutors have referred to the situation as “likely the largest bribery, money laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio.”

What can be done 

The national attention East Palestine has received over the past four weeks has also spotlighted the loopholes that the railroad industry has paid for. In late February, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023, which would mandate, among other things, that operators provide states with advance notice of shipment of hazardous materials and install a hot-box detector every 10-mile segment of rail track that is used to transport hazardous materials. 

The FRA also launched an initiative on March 1 calling for “focused inspections on routes that carry high-hazard flammable trains (HHFTs) and other trains carrying large volumes of hazmat commodities.”  

According to Darya Minovi, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, what’s also needed is an updated and more stringent EPA RMP rule on pollution from chemical facilities. The RMP regulates about 12,000 facilities across the country that use toxic chemicals. A draft rule proposed last year would only require 5% of facilities to assess safer chemicals and technologies. Minovi said the EPA is currently writing the final rule to update the RMP. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has also called for these kinds of rules to include provisions for worsening climate change conditions. 

But in addition to the rule-making, and perhaps underlying the need for the rule in the first place, Minovi questions the consumption of petroleum products in the first place. “I don’t think PVC plastic is necessarily key to human survival. I think we can find ways to not use it,” she said.

From extracting chemicals and fossil fuels needed to produce vinyl chloride through the time it hits the market to its disposal, the substance and product are extremely harmful to everyone who interacts with it. “I think we need to ask ourselves the question of, is this worth it?”

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.