Five of the tankers from the train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, last week were carrying liquid vinyl chloride, which is extremely combustible. A controlled burn was done to mitigate the hazard and it worked.
Authorities assured residents that any immediate danger had passed when they lifted the evacuation order for residents of East Palestine. Real-time air readings, which use portable instruments to broadly detect classes of pollutants such as volatile organic compounds, showed that air quality near the site was within normal limits.
Up to this point, officials have been looking for big immediate threats: explosions or chemical levels that could make someone seriously ill. But cleanup and monitoring of the site could take years, an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency official said.
Although the risk of explosion has passed, people living in eastern Palestine want to know about the chemical threats that could persist.
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 the city.
When asked at a briefing about exactly what was spilled, Norfolk Southern representatives mentioned butyl acrylate, vinyl chloride and a small amount of non-hazardous lubricating oil.
About the chemicals: Butyl acrylate is a clear, colorless liquid with a strong fruity odor that is used to make plastics and paints. It can be inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin. It irritates the eyes, skin and lungs and can cause difficulty breathing, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Repeated exposure may cause lung damage.
Vinyl chloride, which is used to make PVC pipe, can cause dizziness, drowsiness, and headaches. It has also been linked to an increased risk of liver, brain, lung, and blood cancers.
Although butyl acrylate mixes easily with water and will move quickly through the environment, it’s not especially toxic to humans, said Richard Peltier, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Vinyl chloride, however, is very toxic and very persistent in the environment, and can form some really terrible combustion byproducts, Peltier said.
A Norfolk Southern spokesperson acknowledged but did not respond to CNN’s request for more information on the amount of these chemicals that were released into the soil and water. The Ohio EPA says it’s not sure yet either.
“We are definitely signing up to air test the house before we go in there,” resident Ben Ratner said.