YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The train accident in East Palestine is not the first time that a derailment caused a release of vinyl chloride. It happened in 2012 in Paulsboro, New Jersey.
In that case, 20,000 gallons of the chemical were released. On that day on November 30, 28 residents sought medical attention for possible exposure, and the train crew and many emergency responders were also exposed, according to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board. This was a spill, not a burnoff such as the East Palestine derailment, but in both instances, there was a release of vinyl chloride into the ground and into the water.
Local, state and government agencies investigated the derailment, and the NTSB issued recommendations and guidelines.
Some of their findings included that eyewitnesses at the scene saw a “vapor cloud” engulfing the scene immediately following the accident and rapidly expanding along a creek. As many as 680 residents were evacuated because of the vinyl chloride release.
At first, officials said erroneously that the vapor cloud was nontoxic, changing the evacuation order to shelter-in-place. “Therefore the community protective measures were based on incorrect information about the released material,” the report said.
The report noted that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates
that no employee may be exposed to vinyl chloride at concentrations greater than 1 ppm
averaged over any 8-hour period; that no employee may be exposed at concentrations greater
than 5 ppm averaged over any period not exceeding 15 minutes; and that no employee may be
exposed to vinyl chloride by direct contact with the material. Workers can easily be overexposed
without becoming aware of vinyl chloride presence because the odor threshold is too high to
provide warning for hazardous concentrations.
The report said that vinyl chloride irritates the eyes, mucous membranes and respiratory tract. Extreme exposure can cause severe medical conditions or even death. Chronic exposure can cause liver damage, skin and bone issues. The US Department of Health and Human Services has classified vinyl chloride as a known human carcinogen, the report stated.
The chemical is less troublesome for “aquatic organisms,” according to the report, and it is less of a danger if released into the air as opposed to the ground or water. In East Palestine, there has been fish kill due to the vinyl chloride contamination, officials said.
West Virginia Governor Jim Justice said on Wednesday that chemicals from the East Palestine derailment spilled into the Ohio River in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia.
Justice added that officials moved quickly with an abundance of caution and that “we feel like everything is fine here.”
Health effects from the train derailment
A report released by the New Jersey Department of Health in 2014 showed the effects vinyl chloride had on the residents of Paulsboro.
A survey was conducted and information was collected from 1,930 people, including some who were evacuated and some who weren’t.
The survey showed that more than half of Paulsboro residents responding to the survey experienced symptoms consistent with exposure to vinyl chloride.
Residents were exposed to vinyl chloride in the air and “exposures to vinyl chloride were likely to have been high enough to cause reversible, short-term health effects.”
Over 250 people visited the emergency room as a result of the incident. Patients reported experiencing headaches, irritation of the nose and throat, cough, difficulty breathing, eye irritation, dizziness and nausea.
Vinyl chloride is known to be a cancer-causing chemical after long-term exposure. However, it was unclear whether or not short-term exposure increases the risk of getting cancer. The report also stated it was unclear if there could be long-term, non-cancer harmful health effects from the exposure to vinyl chloride that occurred in Paulsboro.
The report states that there was no specific medical testing that was recommended.
The Centers for Disease Control also created a self-administered survey to assess health effects on first responders, which was released in 2015. That survey showed that of 93 respondents, 26% of respondents experienced headache and upper respiratory symptoms during the response, and 23% of 92 respondents sought medical evaluation.
The survey showed that a “high percentage of participants” reported smelling or tasting an unusual odor in the air during the incident.
“The symptoms that were more commonly reported are consistent with what is known to occur from exposure to vinyl chloride,” the report stated.
The symptoms were most commonly reported from evacuated areas and the area within one block of the evacuated areas and were less frequent in areas farther than 3,500 feet from the accident location.
Emergency response to the derailment
The investigation into the emergency response to the derailment uncovered several deficiencies.
Emergency responders said their actions were hindered by the lack of timely and accurate information about the number of loaded or empty cars, weight and length of the train. Emergency officials in East Palestine said it was difficult for them to obtain the manifest from the Norfolk train.
“Federal regulations require railroads to make emergency response information and shipping papers (train consists) available to authorized officials. When accidents occur, the incident commander is the individual responsible for assessing the safety hazards of the scene. Thus, rail crews should immediately provide the emergency response information and the shipping papers, in printed form or electronically, to the incident commander,” the reports stated.
Regulations are already in place addressing that issue and were recommended in a previous derailment investigation that said, “Work together to develop regulations requiring that railroads immediately provide to emergency responders accurate, real-time information about the identity and location of all hazardous materials on a train.”
Investigators said that contributing to the consequences of the derailment was the failure of the incident commander to establish hazardous material response protocols for worker protection and community exposure.
In the New Jersey case, the fire chief had to wait 3.5 hours to be provided with that information, however, the conductor told him that the situation was “life-threatening” and that “people are going to die” and verbally provided the chief with hazardous material information.
“The fire chief made several requests to be provided with the train consist; however, the
trainmaster retained possession of the consist for almost 3.5 hours, leaving emergency
responders with no means of referencing the document for response planning,” the report stated.
The equipment damage was estimated at $451,000 and the emergency response remediation totaled about $30 million.
The cause of the New Jersey derailment was a bridge malfunction. Further, it showed that there were deficiencies in emergency response planning, public communication, chain of command adherence, information breakdown between the railroad and emergency responders and inefficient protocols in handling hazardous material releases.
According to the Association of American Railroads, more than 99.9% of all hazmat moved by rail reaches its destination without a release caused by a train accident.