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Ohio derailment: What chemicals spilled and how could they impact residents?

EAST PALESTINE, OHIO — The chemicals that spilled and were later burned near East Palestine, Ohio, after the Feb. 3 train derailment have the kinds of names that bring back visions of high school chemistry: vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate and isobutylene.

The burning of some chemicals in the aftermath of the disaster — a decision made by authorities to avoid an explosion — is also complicating an already fraught situation that has sparked fears of potential health impact beyond eastern Ohio.

The threats of the chemicals vary. Residents of East Palestine have been told it’s safe to return home, but questions remain about lingering exposure in the air, water and soil, even if at low levels.

Five toxic chemicals have been identified around the derailment site:

“There’s been a lot of nebulous discussion about testing and safety and following the science, but there’s actually no cohesive explanation about what they did, why they did it and what they’re doing now,” said Andrew Whelton, a professor of environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University.

Whelton said he’s especially concerned about harmful pollutants that may have been created as a byproduct of the derailment and fire. These include compounds known as dioxins that are separate from the toxic substances that were initially spilled but are produced when chemicals such as vinyl chloride are burned.

While the Environmental Protection Agency has said it will continue testing and monitoring air, water and soil in East Palestine, officials did not specify if sampling would include byproducts such as dioxins.

“Dioxins are heavy compounds that like to stick to stuff,” Whelton said. “Dioxins typically stick to the particulate matter that was created during the burn, and then can settle on to people’s properties or brought into their homes. And they can be quite toxic if ingested and inhaled.”

Dioxins are also long-lived compounds because they do not break down easily. In some cases, Whelton said, they can be present in homes or other environments for decades.

Of the chemicals that were identified at the derailment site, vinyl chloride has been the main focus.

Exposure at high doses can increase a person’s risk of liver damage or liver cancer, according to the CDC, but long-term exposure at low levels is also thought to have damaging health consequences.

Vinyl chloride is a so-called volatile organic compound that can exist in both liquid and gas forms. This means it can seep into soil and pollute groundwater, but, especially at high temperatures, it can also contaminate the air, said Juliane Beier, a hepatologist at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied the effects of vinyl chloride on animals.

“Vinyl chloride is so volatile, so within homes or other enclosed spaces, it will come out of the water due to the room temperature, or especially when the water is heated — taking showers, cooking, so on and so forth,” Beier said.

The EPA said it began testing air quality in the East Palestine area within 24 hours of the derailment and is also assisting with indoor air quality monitoring as part of a voluntary program that includes more than 550 homes. So far, the agency reported that vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride were not detected above levels of concern.

But Mo Osman, who runs Summit Environmental Technologies, a lab that Ohio’s Columbiana County hired to analyze its water samples, said it can take time for pollutants to seep into groundwater stores.

“If a well is safe right now, we don’t know what the quality of that water is going to be in a week, a month or two months,” Osman said. “It takes time for pollution to potentially travel from the source of contamination to the individual well, so it is very important to continue sampling at a certain frequency.”

Vinyl chloride is also not the only chemical that authorities are monitoring.

Last week, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the agency is testing for all volatile organic chemicals and will continue to monitor air and water quality in the region.

Denise Chow is a reporter for NBC News Science focused on general science and climate change.

Kenzi Abou-Sabe is a reporter and producer in the NBC News Investigative Unit.

Category: Science

Source: NBC Science

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