Five of the tankers on the train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, last week were carrying liquid vinyl chloride, which is extremely combustible. A controlled burn was conducted to mitigate the danger and it worked.
Authorities assured the residents that any immediate danger had passed as they lifted the evacuation order for East Palestine residents. Real-time air readings, which use handheld instruments to broadly screen for classes of contaminants like volatile organic compounds, showed that the air quality near the site was within normal limits.
Up to this point, officials have been looking for large immediate threats: explosions or chemical levels that could make someone acutely ill. But the cleanup and monitoring of the site could take years, an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency official said.
Although the explosion risk is past, people who live in East Palestine want to know about the chemical threats that might linger.
Fish and frogs have died in local streams. People have reported dead chickens and shared photos of dead dogs and foxes on social media. They say they smell chemical odors around town.
When asked at a briefing about exactly what spilled, representatives from Norfolk Southern listed butyl acrylate, vinyl chloride and a small amount of non-hazardous lube oil.
About the chemicals: Butyl acrylate is a clear, colorless liquid with a strong, fruity odor that’s used to make plastics and paint. It’s possible to inhale it, ingest it or absorb it through the skin. It irritates the eyes, skin and lungs and may cause shortness of breath, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Repeated exposure can lead to lung damage.
Vinyl chloride, which is used to make PVC pipes, can cause dizziness, sleepiness and headaches. It has also been linked to an increased risk of cancer in the liver, brain, lungs and blood.
Although butyl acrylate easily mixes with water and will move quickly through the environment, it isn’t especially toxic to humans, said Richard Peltier, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Vinyl chloride, however, is very toxic and very persistent in the environment, and it can form some really awful combustion byproducts, Peltier said.
A spokesperson for Norfolk Southern acknowledged but did not respond to CNN’s request for more information on how much of these chemicals spilled into the soil and water. The Ohio EPA says it’s not sure yet, either.
“We’re definitely signing up for the air testing of the home before we get in there,” said resident Ben Ratner.