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How train derailment in Ohio raised environmental disaster concerns?

12:26 PM Feb 14, 2023 IST | Wahid Bhat
how train derailment in ohio raised environmental disaster concerns

A train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in Ohio on Friday, February 3. The accident caused a large fire and forced the evacuation of residents of the East Palestine area, near the Pennsylvania border because their lives were in danger.

Train derailment in Ohio

On February 3, a train running between Ohio and Pennsylvania derailed causing a powerful fire, the evacuation of several towns near the tracks and fear that thousands would be injured due to the inhalation of fumes from toxic products.


Specifically, according to media reports such as The Guardian, at least 50 of the derailed wagons, out of a total of 100, were transporting vinyl chloride. It is a substance that is used mainly for the manufacture of plastics and that could complicate the event. For this reason, the Ohio authorities ordered a controlled burning of the substance to avoid the risk of more serious explosions.

The presence of this chemical in the air can be very harmful to life. It is a carcinogen and breathing it for long periods of time can cause lung cancer, blood cancer and other cancers, according to the US National Cancer Institute. Additionally, burning vinyl chloride releases hydrogen chloride and phosgene, a potentially deadly mixture.


The environmental scope of the mishap has yet to be determined, as well as the legal implications and health consequences for East Palestine, the town of 5,000 inhabitants where the overturn occurred. So far, there are more questions than certainties about the case.

Many of East Palestine’s residents had already been evacuated over the weekend, but local officials said more than 500 residents refused to leave, according to a statement from authorities.

Evacuations spread to nearby areas across the board in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, while the cause of the crash is currently being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

What substances did the train carry?

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a comprehensive list of the toxic chemicals that were released when the freight train derailed on February 3.

According to an agency report, a list of toxic chemicals that pollute the air, soil and water surrounding the crash site were identified on the Norfolk Southern train.

Most of the cargo was vinyl chloride, a colourless gas used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics and is highly flammable and decomposes to produce toxic fumes.

According to the National Library of Medicine, it is also carcinogenic and can cause serious health problems.

It’s common for thousands of railcars carrying toxic products to circulate across the country: 12,000 railcars loaded with these materials pass through cities and towns each day, according to the US Department of Transportation. According to estimates, 25 million Americans live in the explosion zones of an oil train.

According to records in Pittsburgh, there have been eight train derailments in the last five years, according to The Guardian. In addition, about 1,700 occur annually nationwide. 

A very toxic chemical

The train, which belonged to the Norfolk Southern railroad company, was transporting toxic products from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania. 

The convoy had more than 100 cars, 20 of which were carrying hazardous materials, classified as cargo that could pose any type of hazard, including flammable, combustible, or environmental hazards. Fifty carriages derailed in the accident.

Burning of this chemical, which releases hydrogen chloride and phosgene, can be lethal. Phosgene is a colourless, highly toxic gas that was used as a weapon during World War I.

An attention call

This catastrophe serves as a ‘wake-up call’ to the deadly toxic train derailments happening in the United States, warns Ron Kaminkow, a former freight engineer for Norfolk Southern and secretary of Railroad Workers United.

According to estimates, 25 million Americans live in oil train blast zones. This latest derailment could have been much more dangerous if it had occurred a few miles further east, in downtown Pittsburgh.

Railroads transport an average of 4.5 million tons of toxic chemicals each year: 12,000 railcars loaded with these materials pass through cities and towns each day, according to the US Department of Transportation.

In the Pittsburgh region, there have been eight train derailments in the last five years, according to The Guardian. Additionally, about 1,700 occur annually nationally: an ethanol train in Kentucky derailed and burst into flames in February 2020, a crack in a track caused a 2018 derailment in Pittsburgh, and 47 people died in Quebec in 2013 when a train exploded.

Is the answer in heaven or on earth?

On social networks, many users wonder if all the necessary information is being received about what some describe as a ‘chemical Chernobyl’, and politicians have begun to associate the recent sightings and shootdowns of unidentified flying objects in space with this tragedy. American aircraft, which according to them were being used as a form of diversion.

One of them is Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right militant known for her spread of conspiracy theories, who recently tweeted: “East Palestine, Ohio is experiencing an ecological disaster because authorities blew up derailed train cars. train carrying dangerous chemicals and the press is being arrested for trying to break the story. Oh, but UFOs! What’s going on?’.

A Netflix movie predicted the accident

Two years ago, Netflix shot a movie that narrated an incident very similar to the one that happened recently, also with Ohio as a setting.

White Noise ” is the name of the film that shows how several people try to evacuate the area after a freight train collided with a tanker truck, causing an explosion that filled the air with dangerous toxins.

The film, which stars Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, had its world premiere at the 79th Venice International Film Festival on August 31, 2022, before being made available on the streaming service. 

UFOs as cover?

The Ohio train derailment happened just one day before the US government located and then shot down a Chinese spy balloon hovering over US airspace. For many, the coincidence in time of these two events is not accidental. Rather the complete opposite.


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Wahid Bhat

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Wahid Bhat is an accomplished environmental journalist with a passion for covering climate change and environmental issues. He holds a degree from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication and has served as the Media Fellow for NFI India and Thomson Reuters Foundation. Wahid's reporting has been published in a range of respected outlets including Earth Journalism, Global Village Space, The Quint, Youth Ki Awaaz, Devdiscourse, and Kashmir Observer. With an extensive background in the field, Wahid has established himself as a trusted voice in environmental journalism, and his work serves as an important contribution to the conversation around climate change and sustainability. You can follow Wahid on Twitter at @Wahidbhat32.

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