Ohio Train Disaster Reveals Gaping Holes in Hazardous Chemical Controls

The Norfolk Southern toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, was an accident waiting to happen. We need regulatory action to prevent more—or even worse—accidents from happening.

A mushroom cloud of smoke rises from the train derailment

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The disastrous Norfolk Southern toxic train derailment on February 3, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio, with its massive hazardous chemical spills, fire, and mushroom cloud of contamination clearly highlights the enormous holes in our regulatory system. The citizens of the community have every right to be outraged and concerned about the health of their families and community. The polluters—not just the railroad but also the chemical companies that put their toxic cargo on this risky carrier—should be held accountable for the harm they have caused. They must be required to clean up and restore the affected environment, pay for independent government environmental testing and medical monitoring of residents, and compensate those whom they have harmed or put at risk.

Valid reasons for concern about health risks 

Some of the chemicals (like vinyl chloride and phosgene) that billowed through the community are known to pose serious health risks. There are valid public concerns about long-term chronic or latent health effects, such as may occur from damage to the respiratory system or from skin irritation, leading to cancer or chronic disease risks. Changing local wind and weather conditions affect where and how far the airborne chemicals move. 

We cannot rely on “dilution as the solution to pollution” of the air and water; these fossil fuel–derived petrochemicals are inherently toxic, and even low levels of these chemicals can be harmful, particularly for sensitive individuals such as pregnant women, children, elders, people with asthma and other respiratory conditions, and people with chronic ailments such as liver and kidney disease. 

There’s little understanding of health impacts from the combined exposures to these chemical contaminants, yet many residents have been—and may for some time—be exposed to a toxic gumbo of a wide variety of hazardous chemicals. 

What should individuals do after the incident?

Nearby residents should: 

  • Keep windows closed and avoid outdoor air as long as there is contamination;
  • Not use contaminated water for drinking, cooking, or bathing. Heated water will volatilize chemicals more than cold water, so breathing in the steam from cooking or washing with heated water will transport chemicals directly into the lungs, and then into the bloodstream;
  • Ask for ongoing and comprehensive drinking water monitoring as well as monitoring of the surface water and groundwater around the site, and demand full transparency, including immediate public disclosure of all results;
  • Treat the site and surrounding area as a highly contaminated Superfund site.

A recent National Public Radio story discusses many of these points with me (Jennifer Sass). 

Community members raise health concerns at a town hall meeting at East Palestine High School


Rebecca Kiger/The Washington Post via Getty Images

What can communities do in the face of an incident?

Work with residents, local governments, first responders, hospital and health-care providers, local environmental justice and environmental groups, union representatives, businesses, and other affected parties to develop response plans that meet the needs of all those who may be in harm's way. Ensure that accurate information can be shared in a timely manner and in relevant languages.

Need for more transparency

There needs to be more transparency about what chemicals were on the train, how much was spilled, what they are testing for in the air, groundwater, surface water, and soil, and what they are finding. Testing so far has been limited. For example, while results from limited testing of a few local streams, the Ohio River plume, and drinking water, and from some air monitoring have been released, we are deeply concerned about any groundwater contamination plume that may be spreading underground and can move over days, weeks, or longer toward waterways, including source water for public and private drinking water and irrigation wells. We are also concerned about both the immediate and long-term effects of the spill and contamination plumes in surface water and groundwater on fish and other wildlife in the region.

An independent analysis of the causes of the incident should be conducted, with findings made public in a timely and transparent manner. Some things to consider include any information on the types of train cars that were involved, and whether some were older-model tanker cars that the National Transportation Safety Board has pointed out are highly vulnerable to being breached in a derailment. Policymakers should also be listening to the commonsense solutions being advanced by worker representatives concerning braking and other safety equipment, the adequacy of staffing of the train, and any mismatch between train operations and safety best practices.


Need for medical attention

It is also important to ensure that hospitals and health-care providers have accurate and timely information about possible chemical exposures. Even then, many doctors may not be adequately trained to diagnose or treat chemical exposures. While it is good that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Health and Human Services have sent some staff to the area, long-term monitoring of the situation and of local residents’ health will be important. 

Polluters should be held accountable

The polluters (both Norfolk Southern and the petrochemical companies shipping these highly hazardous chemicals through communities on this risky carrier that has had numerous previous accidents) should pay for the cleanup and harm they have caused, not the taxpayers. It is deeply concerning that the railroad failed to show up at the public meeting on February 15. They made unsubstantiated claims about safety concerns for their staff, yet they are not facing community members when the company’s malfeasance puts the safety of the whole community at risk.

This was an accident waiting to happen—we need to act to prevent more, or even worse, accidents 

What some are calling “bomb trains”—containing huge quantities of highly flammable, even explosive chemicals—are more common than is publicized, and they travel unbeknownst to at-risk people through their communities every day. While this disaster was horrible, a similar train accident with hazardous chemicals in Quebec left 47 people dead, and future rail accidents could be even worse. For example, trains containing liquefied natural gas (LNG) could cause a truly catastrophic explosion. Our colleagues have calculated that just 22 railcars of LNG hold the same amount of explosive potential as the Hiroshima bomb.

According to a recently published analysis in the New York Times by journalists with The Lever, more than 1,000 trains derail every year, and over the past seven years, the costs of hazardous cargo train accidents have increased. Unions have recommended obvious safety measures such as increasing the number of crew members on each train, limiting train length, improvements to safety monitoring systems, increasing time and staff for railcar inspections, and modernizing the braking systems. In addition, federal regulators, including the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and EPA, should take action to reduce the likelihood of such accidents, and Congress should consider legislation to address serious safety shortcomings. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators from Ohio and Pennsylvania have called for aggressive federal action by EPA and NTSB to address these risks. 

Long-term solutions

As long as toxic and highly flammable petrochemicals, which are derived from fossil fuels, continue to be produced, transported, and used as widely as they are now—in everything from plastics in food packaging to clothing and cosmetics—we will continue to put the nation’s workers and communities at risk. 

To protect the health and safety of people and the environment, real solutions must include eliminating unnecessary uses of hazardous chemicals and shifting to safer alternatives like truly green chemistry

To donate, please consider supporting River Valley Organizing and other local groups that are mobilizing the community and need our help. 

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