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The Toxic Chemicals Unleashed from the Train Derailment

On Feb. 3rd, 2023 a Norfolk Southern train heading to Conway, Pennsylvania derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. The freight train was carrying various products—including highly flammable materials—when it derailed, igniting the 11 cars carrying the hazardous materials and fueling fires that damaged additional railcars that weren’t derailed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disclosed that five materials were released due to the incident:

Vinyl chloride

Associated with cancers spanning multiple organ systems, including the brain and liver

Butyl acrylate

Known to cause acute symptoms such as facial redness, tearing, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, difficulty breathing, and cracking of the skin

Ethylhexyl acrylate

Linked with widespread gastrointestinal irritation

Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether

A known eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritant


A highly flammable industrial compound with the ability to irritate the respiratory tract

These chemicals entered the air, surface soils, and surface waters at the derailment area, causing the evacuation of thousands of residents until air and water quality tests proved that the area was safe. The EPA and Norfolk Southern continue to monitor the air quality and control the release of the chemicals as part of their investigation into the various hazardous chemicals in the train cargo. However, the chemicals have already killed more than 43,000 animals in and around East Palestine three weeks after the train derailment.

One chemical, in particular, has raised more concern compared to the others—vinyl chloride. Used to make polyvinyl chloride hard plastic resin in a variety of plastic products, vinyl chloride is also associated with an increased risk of liver, brain, and lung cancer as well as lymphoma and leukemia, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The Cause of the Derailment

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed in its preliminary report that the crash was completely preventable. The report discovered that the initial fire was started by a hot axle that heated one of the train cars carrying plastic pellets. Despite the increasing temperature, two defect detectors that the train passed did not sound an alarm because the heat threshold wasn’t yet high enough. It wasn’t until the third detector that the alarm was triggered.

However, by this time, the wheel bearing became so overheated that complications arose while the train was coming to a stop. Although NTSB has not come to a definitive conclusion as to why the train derailed, investigators are looking into Norfolk Southern’s procedures, designs, and safety sensors.

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