East Palestine train derailment spread 'hazardous' pollution to 16 states, research shows

The February 2023 incident caused a dayslong fire and sent toxins into the air, water and soil.
Train Derailment Ohio
Posted at 8:21 PM, Jun 19, 2024

The Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, caused "hazardous" pollution to spread across 16 states, according to new research.

On Feb. 3, 2023, the freight train carrying toxic chemicals like vinyl chloride crashed less than a mile from the Pennsylvania border, causing a dayslong fire and sending a plume of toxins into the air, water and soil. No one died or was injured in the crash, but some nearby residents who didn't evacuate reported symptoms like rashes, sore throats and headaches that they feared were related to the contaminated environment.

But in their study, published Wednesday in Environmental Research Letters, researchers say the impacts of the wreckage and the controlled burn of train cars containing certain chemicals days after were greater and more widespread than initially predicted.

In total, the study estimates that at least 16 states and one-third of the nation's population, 110 million people, were actually impacted by the pollution. Those areas span 14% of the country's land area, reaching as far northeast as New England, affecting almost all of the Great Lakes states and potentially reaching as far south as South Carolina.

To come to this conclusion, the researchers examined the chemistry of weekly precipitation samples the National Atmospheric Deposition Program's National Trends Network collects from 260 sites across the continent.

Then, they compared the samples from the week of and after the train accident, Jan. 31 to Feb. 14, to the past 11 years of observations from the same dates, sites and compounds.

As expected, data revealed high chloride concentrations in the Northeast — but also in Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. Plus, the researchers said the level of at least one chemical compound concentration was elevated to the 99th percentile at 19 NTN sites, and eight or more sites had four or more compounds in the 99th percentile.

But their analysis also unexpectedly revealed "exceptionally higher" levels of pH in many northeastern and midwestern states — including Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, Indiana, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania — and likely into southern Canada, though there are no NADP measurements there.

For example, typical pH values for northeastern U.S. precipitation is between 5.2 and 5.8 pH units, though a typical winter pH is 4.9 pH units. During the accident week, northeastern U.S. precipitation showed pH values ranging from 6.4 to 7.3 pH units.

"It is very clear that extreme concentrations of multiple pollutants were present over a widespread area during the days after the accident and resulted in enhanced deposition of these pollutants to aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, including the Lakes Michigan, Erie, Ontario, and likely Huron and Superior," the study said.

Additionally, samples from sites in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and almost each site in New York were flagged for containing soot, ash and dirt.

The study says some of its observations are consistent with the flow of the atmosphere during and after the incident: The sites with the largest impact — along the Canadian/New York border — were downwind of East Palestine in the days during and after the derailment. Then a cold front moved the contaminated air south to Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. And rain likely then washed emissions to other states, like North Carolina, the study says.

Researchers say additional studies should be conducted to focus on which pollutants were transported from the accident and how long they were present over the country.

The Environmental Protection Agency has said it may conduct a multi-year investigation into the health effects of vinyl chloride. But as of now, officials maintain there are no ongoing environmental health risks as a result of the derailment.

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