Health and environmental concerns are mounting after the train derailment and toxic chemical fire this month in eastern Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. According to information provided to the Environmental Protection Agency by the rail operator, Norfolk Southern, around 20 of the train’s roughly 150 cars were carrying hazardous materials.
Here’s a quick guide to the chemicals that people might have been exposed to in the disaster.
Five of the cars that derailed were transporting vinyl chloride, a colorless gas with what toxicologists describe as a “mild, sweet odor.”
Vinyl chloride is used to make polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC, which goes into plastic pipes, cable coatings and packaging materials. It has been found in the air near PVC factories and hazardous waste sites, and can leach into groundwater.
Inhaling it can cause dizziness and disorientation, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Prolonged exposure has been linked to higher rates of liver angiosarcoma, a rare form of cancer.
Last week, the authorities in Ohio decided to release and burn the vinyl chloride in the derailed cars after they were warned that the cargo might explode if they didn’t intervene. When burned, vinyl chloride decomposes into gases including hydrogen chloride and phosgene.
Hydrogen chloride has a strong, irritating odor and is corrosive to any tissue that comes into contact with it, according to the federal toxic substances registry. Phosgene smells like freshly cut hay and can cause coughing and wheezing if inhaled.
The E.P.A. has been screening homes in the affected area for vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride. So far, it has not detected either gas in any of them.
Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether
Another of the derailed cars was carrying ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, a clear, colorless liquid involved in the manufacture of products including varnishes, paint thinners, agricultural chemicals and industrial and household cleaners. In an experiment that exposed people to a high level of the chemical for several hours, some subjects reported irritation of the nose and eyes, headaches and vomiting.
According to a document provided by Norfolk Southern to the E.P.A., which the agency posted on its website on Sunday, the status of the train car carrying ethylene glycol monobutyl ether was “unknown.”
A Norfolk Southern spokesman didn’t immediately respond to an email on Wednesday asking whether this was still the case.
The derailment caused one car’s entire load of butyl acrylate to be “lost,” according to the document from Norfolk Southern. Butyl acrylate is a clear, colorless liquid with a strong odor that is used for making paints, caulks and adhesives. It can cause breathing difficulties and irritation of the eyes and skin, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
A car carrying ethylhexyl acrylate was breached in the derailment, and Norfolk Southern said it was unclear how much of the product had been in the car. Ethylhexyl acrylate is used in making paints and plastics and can irritate the skin, eyes and respiratory tract.
One car carrying isobutylene, a flammable gas with a petroleum-like odor, did not appear to be breached in the derailment, according to Norfolk Southern. Isobutylene is used in the production of isooctane, a component of some gasolines. Breathing it in can cause dizziness and drowsiness.