The dangers of the Ohio train derailment

Luke Ganley ’25

On February 2, 2023, one of the worst chemical disasters on American soil took place, and the media isn’t covering it enough. On this day, a train was carrying 150 cars, some of which carried hazardous materials. 38 cars were derailed in the town of East Palestine, near Ohio’s Pennsylvania border, eleven of which carried dangerous chemicals. After this incident, the Environmental Protection Agency decided that the best course of action would be to evacuate the city and then release the explosion-prone chemicals into a pre-dug trench, for a controlled burn. 

Because the agency was burning chemicals such as vinyl chloride, isobutylene, butyl acrylate, Ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, and benzene, the byproducts produced were less than ideal. The main concern of the residents of East Palestine was vinyl chloride. 

Norfolk Southern contractors removing a burned tank from the crash site in East Palestine, Ohio – Wikimedia Commons

When vinyl chloride combusts, it produces hydrochloric acid as well as phosgene. Of course, acid of any kind is not good for our atmosphere, as it would result in acid rain. Phosgene is also incredibly dangerous for respiration; in fact, phosgene gas was used for chemical warfare in World War I. Breathing in phosgene results in coughing, nausea and vomiting, and even death. In addition, many of the chemicals burned either were carcinogens themselves or produced carcinogenic chemicals when combusted. This means that there is currently a great risk of cancer in East Palestine.

What happened after the burn? After these chemicals were released into our ecosystem, thousands of fish have been reported to be dying. In addition, residents of East Palestine have reported deaths of seemingly healthy pets. 

We should take away that the handling of dangerous chemical substances is not treated as carefully as it should be in the U.S. 

Perhaps igniting the chemicals was the best course of action, but the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) did not dispose of the contaminated soil and water in a proper manner. After the burn, the soil in the trench and near the trains that these dangerous substances touched were not disposed of. This then lead to the contamination of waterways and other nature.

So why should we as students and faculty of the Haverford School care? There is a concern that the chemicals could make their way toward the Philadelphia area, considering how close East Palestine is to us. However, more importantly, we should take away that the handling of dangerous chemical substances is not treated as carefully as it should be in the U.S. 

Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, U.S., February 6, 2023 – National Transportation Safety Board via Wikimedia Commons

The EPA did not control this situation as they should have, and we should be aware of the fact that this is the worst-case scenario. It’s possible that occurrences like this have been happening much closer to us at a smaller scale, but we have no idea. 

This is just the news source that has been reported on, and now we have to be aware of the mistreatment of chemicals in our areas.