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Ohio train derailment leaves ‘much to the unknown,’ professor says

| Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Norfolk Southern train derailment that occurred on Feb. 3 has left a lot to the unknown, engineering professor Kyle Doudrick told The Observer. 

The derailment occurred in East Palestine, Ohio, and has raised many environmental and health concerns in the region. Two days after the train derailed, residents were required to evacuate the area out of fear that some train cars might explode. The risk of explosion was mitigated by the burning of vinyl chloride during a controlled release of the substance. On Feb. 8, two days after the controlled release, residents living inside the evacuation area were told it was safe to return to their homes, CBS News reported.

Since returning home, a number of residents in the East Palestine area have reported symptoms such as headaches and burning sensations in their eyes and throats caused by a chemical odor. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine requested that medical teams from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Department of Health come to the area to help assess remaining dangers in the community, according to CNN

Vinyl chloride is an environmental contaminant and a known carcinogen. According to the National Cancer Institute, vinyl chloride is used to “make polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a hard plastic resin used to make a variety of plastic products, including pipes, wire and cable coatings and packaging materials.” The institute states PVC is not a known or suspected carcinogen.

Doudrick, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and earth sciences, said that when experts refer to a carcinogen, they are referring to long-term exposure to a certain toxin that may cause cancer. 

“When [vinyl chloride] enters the water, it’s a pretty volatile compound,” Doudrick said. “It will actually volatilize, or evaporate, into the air and then once it reaches the air — the atmosphere — it can photodegrade by sunlight. So the sun can break it down, essentially, within minutes to hours.”

Even with its short half-life, Doudrick said it is important to consider the question of how much substance was burned during the controlled release and how much made its way into the environment. 

State and federal officials have determined that there are no dangerous levels of chemicals in the air or the water, The New York Times reported. Nevertheless, many residents of the area expressed their concerns about remaining chemicals. While it is possible that the vinyl chloride degraded before measurements were taken, other people believe officials are not measuring using low enough levels, Doudrick said. 

“Everything is above the detection limit, so nothing was detected. But there could be lower levels there, and they’re not using good enough equipment, what I call cheap equipment,” Doudrick said. 

Many residents are attributing their health concerns to the chemicals released during the derailment despite the reports indicating the area is safe. It is, however, rather difficult to determine whether the reported ailments are caused by the contamination event, Doudrick said. There must be a consistency of symptoms among a large group of people, and some people may have pre-existing health concerns. 

“When you’re trying to make these connections, you usually need a lot of people that are getting sick with the same effect; a lot of people are getting headaches or a lot of people are getting rashes,” Doudrick said. “If it’s just one person getting rashes, and one person is throwing up and then you know what I mean? It’s really hard to make the connection.”

Doudrick also said he doesn’t believe the train derailment will lead to a catastrophic environmental disaster. Environmental disasters are usually caused by a persistent pollutant that does not break down in the environment or massive quantities of contaminants in one area that are slowly leaching into the environment, he said. 

Nevertheless, he said his opinion could change if experts uncover information about the quantity of vinyl chloride released into the environment. 

“It’s an unfolding event, and even [for] people that are involved heavily, or people that know a lot about these types of situations, there’s too many unknowns,” Doudrick said. “So you can make guesses and those guesses could be wrong. And when I say unfolding, it’s like as new knowledge comes those guesses could morph into something else.”

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About Gabrielle Beechert

Gabrielle is currently a junior at Notre Dame majoring in neuroscience and behavior with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She currently serves as Assistant Managing Editor at The Observer.

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