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Toxic Train: The Chemical Compounds of East Palestine

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CWU chapter.

On February 3rd, 2023, a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.  Residents of the area have been complaining about feeling sick after hazardous chemicals have been in the air, water, and soil.  When I saw the headlines on the news, Tik Toks becoming viral regarding people’s water becoming contaminated and they were told it was safe, gave me Erin Brockovich vibes with her case regarding the townspeople dealing with contaminated water from the famous company PG&E and feeling the repercussions. 

In a recent CNN article, more news was uncovered about the train derailment.  It was found that one of the train’s cars was carrying plastic pellets that were heated by a hot axle that ended up sparking the initial fire.  When the temperature of the bearings got hotter, the train passed by two wayside defect detectors that did not trigger an audible alarm message because the heat threshold was not met then.  A third detector though had eventually picked up the high temperature, but it was already too late.  Jennifer Homedy, the chair of the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) said “this was 100% preventable, there was no accident.”  Jennifer claims that every single event that they investigate is preventable.  The NTSB has one goal and that is to ensure that this never happens again.  Going into the next phase of the investigation of the train derailment, they will examine the train’s wheelset and bearing as well as the damage from the derailment.  The agency is also going to consider the designs of tank cars and railcars along with maintenance procedures and practices.  In addition, investigators will review the train operator’s use of wayside defect detectors and the company’s railcar inspection practices so that they can determine what caused the wheel bearing failure will be key to the investigation. 

In the NY Times article, the residents of the 4,700 populated East Palestine were complaining about various ailments in the weeks since the wreckage.  Many expressed concerns about long-term health consequences.  State and federal officials have said repeatedly that they have yet to detect dangerous levels of chemicals in the air or municipal water.  I took a deep dive to find out what chemicals were found on the train and it will shock you how many contaminants were at large in this small town.  Around 20 of the approximate 150 train cars that were en route from Madison, Illinois to Conway, Pennsylvania carried butyl acrylate which was a clear liquid containing a fruity odor that can cause difficulty breathing and skin irritation.  Ethylhexl acrylate is another clear liquid that is used to make paints and plastics that can irritate the skin, eyes and respiratory tract.  Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether is a colorless liquid that is used to make paints and varnishes.  It was found in an experiment that people exposed to high levels of this chemical for several hours reported irritation of the nose and eyes, headaches and vomiting.  Vinyl chloride is a colorless gas that is used in making plastic products.  Toxicologists said this gas has a “mild, sweet odor” which can cause dizziness, headaches and drowsiness when inhaled in the short term, but in the long term can cause a rare form of liver cancer after chronic exposure. 

Claims have been made by experts that they have not seen any exceedances inside homes or in the local air.  There are even claims that the authorities have not tested in enough places or for a broad enough range of substances.  Answers are still very much unclear of if chemicals caused people to get sick even when many individuals around East Palestine have complained of headaches, coughs, rashes and other classic symptoms of chemical exposure.  Only time will tell but until then experts working on this case should take into further consideration of what people are reporting, feeling, and being exposed to.  It should not be disregarded in any way, shape or form.  I hope that matters like these that are taking over a town are taken more seriously and they understand that these are people’s lives and they want to live long and healthy ones.  Stand your ground and make them hear what you are going through.  Don’t settle, it’s your life and you should be able to live it in a healthy environment.

My name is Katelyn Richardson. I am 29 years old. I am currently attending Central Washington University studying for my Master's in food and sciences to become a nutritionist and later a diabetes educator for kids. I've been personally battling type 1 diabetes since I was six years old. I love being outside, vintage shopping, watching movies, and going to stock car races! I love being a Her Campus Contributor because it gives me a platform to talk about current issues, topics I'm passionate about & real-life relatable experiences.