Toxic threats linger for Ohio community after train derailment spews harmful chemicals

WASHINGTON – The Ohio town of East Palestine faces an ongoing danger from hazardous chemical pollution after a train derailment earlier this month, putting air and water quality at risk and raising concerns about health threats to thousands of people.

The Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying chemicals sparked a massive fire, caused the evacuation of more than 1,500 residents, and released hazardous substances into nearby water, the air and the ground. Both the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the federal EPA are monitoring the pollution fallout and providing regular updates.

Among the chemicals released and creating a potential health threat is vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen, and several other substances people shouldn’t be exposed to. Five of the cars in the derailment were carrying vinyl chloride. Fifteen other cars were carrying hazardous material.

The hearts of all Environmental Working Group staff go out to the communities in and around East Palestine, who now face the potential of spikes in the amount of harmful chemicals to which they are exposed.

“What’s so concerning about this calamity is that the danger to the people of East Palestine isn’t just in the smoke and fire they can see, smell and taste,” said EWG President and Co-founder Ken Cook. “The insidious thing about chemical pollution is it can be an invisible danger, contaminating the air we breathe and the water we drink, putting people at risk right now while environmental testing continues.”

Here’s what we know about the toxic threat to communities in the area:

  • Vinyl chloride in the air. Exposure to vinyl chloride increases the risk of cancer and can damage the liver, immune system and nervous system. A risk assessment published by the state of California notes that for carcinogens such as vinyl chloride, there is no safe amount in the air – any is too much. On Feb. 6, crews did a controlled burn off of vinyl chloride, prompting concerns from residents about air pollution impacts.
  • Vinyl chloride in water. EPA standards limit the allowable amount of vinyl chloride in water to no more than 2 parts per billion, or ppb, in public drinking water systems. EWG's recommendation for the maximum level of vinyl chloride in drinking water is 40 times lower, or 0.05 ppb. 

The Ohio EPA says its tests have not yet detected vinyl chloride in waterways. But it has detected other chemicals, including butyl acrylate and ethyl hexyl acrylate.

And the federal EPA says it continues to monitor air quality for other chemicals known to cause health harms: hydrogen chloride, phosgene, n-butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether acetate, and ethylhexyl acrylate.

“Any chemical release is bad enough, but the situation in Ohio is a tragic repeat of the environmental injustices many communities have experienced, where their air, water and soil have been contaminated with some of the worst, most hazardous substances – chemicals people should never be exposed to,” said Cook. 

“This catastrophe is yet another stark reminder why it’s vital to have strict regulation and oversight of chemicals transported across the country,” Cook said.


The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action

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