Acrolein levels also of critical concern
Fire on the horizon

“We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open.” Those are the words of former Youngstown fire chief and hazmat specialist Sil Caggiano, describing the anything-but-controlled burn of 1.1 million pounds of highly hazardous chemicals after the Norfolk Southern derailment disaster in East Palestine on February 3. 

Since then, residents have had a lot more questions than answers about what exactly was in those rail cars and what else formed when the chemicals in those cars were drained into a ditch and burned. The fire pit burn created a mushroom cloud of toxic smoke that was carried by the wind across neighboring states and even into Canada, according to NOAA modeling.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a list of five toxic chemicals in the train cars that derailed: vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, and isobutylene. Vinyl chloride, used to make polyvinyl chloride plastic, is a carcinogen. Burning it releases hydrogen chloride, which can irritate the eyes, throat, skin, and nose, and phosgene, used as a chemical weapon in World War I. 

Burning any chlorinated compound also creates a little-discussed class of chemicals: dioxins. Dioxins were the toxic component of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. They were at the root of the Love Canal disaster in 1979 and the evacuation of Times Beach, Missouri, in 1983. 

Dioxins can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and can interfere with hormones, according to the EPA. They are fat-soluble, meaning they accumulate in the bodies of animals and anyone who eats a contaminated animal. Dioxins are so toxic that their doses are measured in picograms – one-trillionth of a gram. A gram is 1/30th of an ounce.

Burning large quantities of vinyl chloride creates a lot of dioxins – yet no agency we know of has tested for dioxins. We call for comprehensive testing for dioxins in the air, soil, water, farms, and homes of East Palestine to be done immediately and for results to be made public. 

“The EPA had to know when they were going to burn vinyl chloride that dioxin would be formed. It’s criminal that they didn’t come forward with that,” Stephen Lester, science director at the Center for Health and Environmental Justice, said at an East Palestine town hall on Thursday. “What I suspect is that if they test for it, they’ll find it, and because it’s so toxic, that people will be justified in their concerns and their fears about what could happen to them.” 

In a community town hall on Friday, environmental whistleblower Erin Brockovich also called for government agencies to provide comprehensive information to residents of East Palestine. “I’ve learned in communities over and over again — they can handle the truth,” she said. “Whether it scares them, or they don’t want to hear it. What they can't handle is a mistruth, being misled.”

Since the Norfolk Southern train derailment, officials from the Ohio EPA have repeatedly said they have tested the air and water in East Palestine and found it to be safe. Yet independent experts deemed the water testing, done by a company hired by Norfolk Southern, as “sloppy.” 

Independent testing of air samples by the Texas A&M Superfund Research Center found elevated levels of nine chemicals. Of those, acrolein was found at levels 40 times higher than where adverse health risks are possible. 

Exposure to acrolein can cause dizziness, nausea, and headaches. Higher exposure can cause a build-up of fluid in the lungs, a medical emergency, and result in permanent lung damage. This finding alone leads us to ask: Should the residents of East Palestine should be re-evacuated? 

Dioxins are much more toxic than acrolein. Testing for dioxins requires special laboratory equipment, but must be done immediately. The residents of East Palestine deserve to know the truth.

Buckeye Environmental Network (BEN) is a non-profit committed to empowering grassroots organizations, individuals, and local communities to advocate for environmental justice. We have worked for almost 25 years protecting Ohio’s native public forests, influencing policies and practices of our state and federal governments through grassroots organizing, media campaigns, and legal efforts. Climate stability can be obtained by engaging and empowering citizens to create a voice in public discourse and the media by issuing protective policies and by providing influence with decision-makers that will implement these policies.