Dead fish, chemical smells and headaches: The fallout from Ohio’s toxic train disaster

Concerned residents attended a town hall meeting held by activist Erin Brockovich after a toxic freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Concerned residents attended a town hall meeting held by activist Erin Brockovich after a toxic freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Copyright AP Photo/Matt Freed
Copyright AP Photo/Matt Freed
By Angela Symons with Xinhua News Agency via Reuters; AP
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Famous lawyer Erin Brokovich led a town hall meeting for concerned residents on Friday.


Almost a month after a freight train carrying hazardous materials was derailed in Ohio, USA, clean-up operations are still underway.

The catastrophe, which occurred on 3 February near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, left 20 truckloads of toxic liquid and solid waste behind. This is now being shipped to hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities in Ohio, Michigan and Texas.

Following the incident, fears grew about a potential explosion due to hazardous chemicals being carried by the train. Those living in the vicinity were evacuated and schools in the area were closed. To prevent an uncontrolled explosion, officials later opted to release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from the tanker cars, releasing a cloud of toxic fumes.

Although residents have been told they can return home safely, concerns remain over possible drinking water contamination, long term impacts, and reports of dead animals.

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, 4 February 2023.AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

How did the Ohio train derailment unfold?

The train, operated by Norfolk Southern Railroad, was travelling from Illinois to Pennsylvania. At around 9pm on 3 February, it is thought to have derailed due to a mechanical problem with a wheel bearing caused by overheating. 

It has since emerged that the train had broken down just two days earlier, reports the Independent.

Questions have been raised as to whether the crew of just two rail workers and one trainee was adequate to monitor such a large train. No one was injured in the incident.

Of the train’s 150 freight cars, 20 were carrying hazardous materials. Around 50 cars were involved in the accident, including 10 of those carrying toxic materials.

If left to explode, these materials would have caused a “deadly dispersion of shrapnel and toxic fumes”, Ohio governor Mike Dewine said in a news briefing on 6 February.

“We had to weigh different risks with no great choices,” he continued before announcing that a controlled burn of the toxic chemicals would be carried out to prevent a more dangerous explosion.

The disaster happened in East Palestine, Ohio, a town of around 4,700 people about 80 km northwest of Pittsburgh.

Nearly 2,000 residents living within a one-by-two mile (1.6 by 3.2 km) radius were told they were in “imminent danger” and were ordered to leave immediately. But one resident told Reuters news agency their home already smelled like chemicals.

The contents of the railcars was drained into trenches where it was burned, with the fire going out on 8 February.

What hazardous materials was the train carrying?

Five of the derailed cars were carrying pressurised vinyl chloride, a highly flammable and carcinogenic gas. It is produced industrially to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Vinyl chloride exposure is associated with an increased risk of a rare form of liver cancer, as well as primary liver cancer, brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukaemia.

The controlled burn also released hydrogen chloride and phosgene. Phosgene is a highly toxic gas that can cause vomiting and breathing problems. It was used as a chemical weapon during World War I.

Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene were also reportedly found by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the derailed train.


Contact with ethylhexyl acrylate, a carcinogen, can cause burning and irritation of the skin and eyes. Breathing it in can irritate the nose and throat and cause coughing and shortness of breath.

These chemicals have been released into the air, soil and surface waters surrounding the accident - including the Ohio River.

Over 250 metric tonnes of toxic waste were left at the disaster site. These are now being disposed of EPA-approved treatment facilities. Some of the liquid waste will be sent to a facility in Vickery, Ohio, for disposal in an underground injection well, according to Environmental Protection Agency administrator Debra Shore. 

Norfolk Southern will also begin shipping solid waste to an incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, and additional solid waste disposal locations are being sought, adds Shore.

Is it safe for Ohio residents to return home?

On 8 February, air monitoring carried out by the EPA showed it was safe for residents to return home.


By 14 February, the EPA had conducted air quality tests in almost 400 homes, and did not detect vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride.

The EPA is also monitoring surface and groundwater locally for contamination.

On 17 February, the Lieutenant Governor of Ohio, Jon Husted, tweeted a video of himself drinking water from the tap with local fire chief Keith Drabick, police chief James Brown, and Mayor Trent Conaway. The caption reads: "The water is safe and they are working around the clock to keep it that way."

However, concerns persist over whether the air and water is truly safe.

Residents have reported persistent odours, coughs and headaches. One local couple and their toddler have been diagnosed with respiratory infections, reports US TV network NewsNation.


Ohio’s health director assured residents on 14 February that even low levels of contaminants that aren’t considered hazardous can create lingering odours or symptoms such as headaches.

But some say they worry about long term effects of even low-grade exposure to contaminants from the site.

On 21 February, the Ohio Department of Health will open a clinic in East Palestine where residents can have their health concerns checked.

Despite local reports of sick or dead animals, the Ohio Department of Agriculture hasn’t received any official reports about livestock or pet illnesses or deaths directly related to the incident. However, it said autopsies and lab work would be required to make such a determination.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates the spill affected more than 11.2 km of streams and killed some 3,500 small fish, but officials have said drinking water in the area has remained protected.

AP Photo/Matt Freed
Residents from East Palestine line up to hear activist Erin Brockovich speak at a town hall meeting on 24 February.AP Photo/Matt Freed

Who will pay for the damages?

Rail operator Norfolk Southern is creating a $1 million (€937,000) charitable fund to help the local community while remediation work continues, including removing spilled contaminants from the ground and streams and monitoring air quality.

However, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro said on Tuesday that Norfolk Southern had mismanaged the disaster from the outset and that its actions hampered the response from local and state agencies.

He also said the company had been unwilling to look at alternatives to intentionally releasing and burning the five cars filled with vinyl chloride.

“Prioritising an accelerated and arbitrary timeline to reopen the rail line injected unnecessary risk and created confusion,” Shapiro said in a letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw.

Some local residents are filing class action lawsuits against Norfolk Southern, claiming lost income due to evacuations and exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.


Renowned lawyer Erin Brokovich has been outspoken about the incident, urging the Biden administration to “step up” its response to the matter and demanding accountability.

While the President has declined to visit the disaster site, his administration has ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for the damage and clean-up efforts. 

Various town halls have been held to air residents' concerns, including one led by Brockovich on 24 February in which she told attendees to "be vigilant, hold your ground". After Norfolk Southern officials failed to attend initial meetings, the EPA ordered them to attend future events.

The derailment has initiated a political battle over railroad safety regulations after reports of cost-cutting and rollbacks.

How has the incident affected the Ohio River?

Over five million people rely on the Ohio River for drinking water, and claims have spread on social media that this could have been contaminated by the incident.


In response, some water companies have shut off their intakes or increased treatment processes as a precaution.

State and local agencies are conducting sampling throughout the Ohio River. The EPA says contaminant amounts found so far don't pose a risk for drinking water and the plume is continuing to be diluted as it moves further along.

However, at a press conference, Ohio health officials advised residents using private wells near the derailment to use bottled water.

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