Government officials told residents of East Palestine, Ohio, that it was safe to remain in their homes after the February 3, 2023, train derailment and fire that spilled toxic chemicals in their town. The decision was made based on results not from independent testers but from a firm hired by Norfolk Southern—the corporate owner of the train, the track, and the disaster.
One of the chemicals spilled in the crash was vinyl chloride, a known cancer-causing agent that, when burned, turns into phosgene, a toxic gas. Nevertheless, controlled burns were conducted at the site three days after the derailment, ostensibly to avoid further explosions. These burns spread toxins even farther, and in the form of airborne particles much harder to address than contaminated soil and water. Who ordered the burns and is responsible for them remains in dispute.
Many residents reported persistent symptoms including headaches, coughs, nose irritation, and nausea, all of which were blamed on proximity to the initial derailment, not its toxic aftermath. A month later, however, when the Centers for Disease Control finally sent 15 investigators to do door-to-door checks on residents, seven of those workers promptly came down with the same symptoms locals had been experiencing. How, then, can the town be safe for residents, if even newcomers are sickened upon arrival?
In the initial days after the derailment, corporate media in the US exhaustively reported on the political tit-for-tat games being played, as Republicans and Democrats vied to claim bragging rights over who had the most fervent hopes and prayers for rural Midwesterners. The bungled cleanup and premature clean bill of health for the town received considerably less coverage, even as Norfolk Southern was singled out by the feds as a lone bad apple.
Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters reminded Americans that the East Palestine wreck was one of at least 224 hazardous-chemical spills since the start of 2022: “Toxic chemical releases, fires and explosions occur every two days on average across the U.S.,” the Coalition noted.
Source: “New Map Shows Toxic Chemical Releases, Fires and Explosions Occur Every Two Days Across the U.S.” Coming Clean, February 25, 2023.
Student Researcher: Julia Broberg (Frostburg State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Andy Duncan (Frostburg State University)