Toxic Ohio train derailment not a danger to Ontario, experts say

An aerial view of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. The derailment occurred days earlier on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.
Screenshot from drone video released by the US National Transportation Safety Board via WikiCommons.

A train derailment and the massive chemical fire that ensued nearly two weeks ago in East Palestine, Ohio, are not a cause for concern to residents of the area surrounding Lake Ontario, according to two experts from Queen’s University.

Social media users may have come across erroneous posts that allude to danger for the population of Ontario from the industrial accident, but Philip Jessop, an expert in green chemistry, solvents, catalysts, and supercritical fluids, does not have concern for people beyond the immediate area of the train derailment.

“There’s an old saying ‘the solution to pollution is dilution,’” he explained. “ As a pollution strategy, that was a terrible strategy, but it does apply in situations like this. As you get further away from the site of the accident, the risk goes lower and lower until it’s not even worth writing about. So, the people within, say, a 10-kilometre radius really have to be concerned about monitoring and all this kind of stuff. But that doesn’t even take us to Lake Ontario from East Palestine [Ohio, the site of the accident]. So for the people in Ontario, anybody here is so far away, I really don’t think there’s a problem.”

As for the effect on Lake Ontario, Queen’s researcher Stephen Brown, an expert in water quality issues, water purification, and environmental contaminants, explained that “this is really the kind of event that’s going to be locally isolated.”

Brown went on to say that some of the chemicals on the train have the potential to leach into local waterways, like the Ohio River, “So, certainly people in that area need to be concerned until they have the site completely cleaned up and they know where any contaminants have gone close by… but I wouldn’t worry once you get outside of Ohio.”

Brown and Jessop both identified the chemical of most concern to the United States Environmental Protection Agency as vinyl chloride, a hazardous material used to produce the material known as PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic.

Vinyl chloride is a “really hazardous material,” said Brown. “It’s flammable and explosive when it’s stored under pressure. It’s a bit like propane gas where it’s stored in a liquefied form, but if you punch a hole in the container that gas comes flying out and ignites… [and] can cause a local explosion or a local fire that’s very hazardous. And then the vinyl chloride itself is quite toxic, so you wouldn’t want to breathe that in close to where a leak happens.”

When burned, vinyl chloride produces acutely toxic gases, including hydrochloric acid and phosgene. Jessop said that although these chemicals can travel a few kilometres on the wind, there would not be a risk for those who are hundreds of kilometres away. “That’s why the US EPA is overseeing things locally, but hasn’t put out warnings to communities further away, or to Ontario in general,” he explained.

“Since the initial derailment, EPA has led robust air-quality testing (including with the state-of-the-art ASPECT plane) in and around East Palestine. At this time, our air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern that can be attributed to the incident,” EPA Great Lakes said Tuesday, Feb. 14 on Twitter.

The incident saw 38 train cars derail on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. Three days later, on February 6, crews conducted a controlled release of toxic chemicals from train cars that were in danger of exploding. This caused a massive plume of dark smoke and it wasn’t long before environmental damage became evident to observers. Thousands of fish and other aquatic life died as a result.

But there is no cause to be worried for local flora and fauna, said Jessop, as there is no reason to believe the videos, social media posts, and ‘articles’ claiming the effects of the derailment will wreak havoc on the health of those living in the local region.

“What happens is these gases disperse with the winds… the winds right now over Ohio are going straight north, so you’re really going more towards London and Branford,” he explained. “Eventually, it can make its way eastward because the winds generally prevail eastward. But once it gets to Kingston, it’s going to be so dispersed that I really don’t see any risk to the wildlife here, either. I’m more worried about the wildlife closer to Ohio.”

With files from Dylan Chenier.

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