On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying a variety of toxic chemicals—along with other freight—derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, spilling toxic substances into local surface waters and igniting a harmful fire. To avoid the possibility of an explosion of several tank cars carrying vinyl chloride, authorities decided to undertake a “controlled vent and burn” that kicked off billowing clouds of acrid black smoke. Soon, local residents began to complain of “headaches, coughs, rashes and other classic symptoms of chemical exposure.”
In a short time, the quiet town of East Palestine found itself facing great uncertainty about possible long-term health risks. For instance, according to the National Institutes of Health, vinyl chloride toxicity is associated with various forms of cancer, including brain, lung, and liver cancer, as well as nerve damage, immune reaction, and other risks. In addition to vinyl chloride, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that the spill released ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene, and butyl acrylate, among other potentially harmful irritants, into the “air, surface soils, and surface waters.”
Individually, each of these substances can produce a host of negative health consequences. In combination, and as the chemicals break down over time, the risks multiply and become less well-understood. An article in The New York Times captures the risks, noting that, “Chemical compounds can interact with one another in complex ways and persist after burning.”
Fatalities from Class I freight railroad accidents this past year
Because freight accidents seldom make national news, it’s tempting to assume they are rare. Unfortunately, freight train derailments are a frequent occurrence. In fact, Norfolk Southern had a second derailment in Ohio on March 5, which resulted in 28 cars jumping the tracks. In 2022, there were 923 Class I freight railroad (defined as any rail carrier with more than $943.9 million in annual revenue) derailments—or 2.5 per day—and 1,533 highway-rail grade crossing collisions. Overall, Class I freight railroad accidents resulted in 602 fatalities this past year. Norfolk Southern alone had 156 and 119 derailments in 2021 and 2022, respectively.* This is an unacceptable level of industry performance.
Both Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation must act swiftly through legislation and rulemakings to prevent future accidents, increase industry accountability, and improve accident response, including ensuring immediate health screening and health care services as well as through long-term health monitoring and services for local residents who choose to participate.
Yet it would be a mistake to focus the national policy response only on the transportation sector without examining the broader use of harmful toxic chemicals across the U.S. economy. A truly comprehensive response to this incident must include incentives for U.S. industries to reformulate their products and processes to eliminate petrochemicals and other toxic substances as quickly as possible. As long as there is industrial demand for toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride, there will be a need for transport and the risk of future accidents that harm public and environmental health.
Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation should address the immediate issue of transportation safety and public health as well as the long-term issue of petrochemicals and other toxic substances in the economy.
Rail safety, industry accountability, and information sharing
On March 1, in response to the train derailment in Ohio, Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), J.D. Vance (R-OH), Bob Casey (D-PA), Marco Rubio (R-FL), John Fetterman (D-PA), and Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023. This legislation includes several key policy reforms that, if enacted, would reduce both the frequency and severity of future freight rail accidents as well as improve the emergency response. The bill would:
- Establish requirements for the installation, repair, testing, maintenance, and operation of wayside defect detectors (i.e., “hot box” detectors) to prevent bearing failure due to overheating. Defect detectors would have to be located at least every 10 miles.
- Require freight rail carriers to provide advance notification and information regarding the transportation of hazardous materials to state and Tribal governments along with a written gas discharge plan for the hazardous materials being transported.
- Increase the maximum civil penalties on rail carriers for violations of rail safety regulations.
- Set minimum time requirements that a qualified mechanical inspector must spend when inspecting a rail car or locomotive.
- Empower the secretary of transportation to regulate train length and weight; train contents; train speed; track standards; track, bridge, and rail car maintenance; and signaling and train control, among other freight rail characteristics.
- Set minimum train crew size.
- Speed up the retirement date for older tank cars carrying Class 3 flammable liquids.
- Increase training grants for first responders.
The East Palestine derailment points to a critical gap in the response to accidents that unleash toxic chemicals: identifying and addressing both acute and long-term health risks that persist beyond the immediate containment and cleanup. The full health effects from exposure may take years to become fully known. And initial testing may prove inadequate to capture the full extent of risk to both local populations and first responders.
For instance, just seven days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center complex, which ignited and collapsed both buildings, EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman stated that she was “glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C., that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink.” This declaration proved catastrophically wrong. It took years of fierce advocacy by first responders, their families, and others to secure adequate funding for health care for the women and men who worked tirelessly on the cleanup of ground zero or were otherwise directly affected by the exposure. To avoid repeating this mistake in the wake of rail or other industrial accidents that release hazardous chemicals into the environment, the federal government should:
- Adopt regulations that require the rail carrier at fault to cover the cost of immediate rigorous independent health monitoring and screenings to be carried out by public health agencies for a period to be determined by the agencies. Intensity and duration of exposure, along with location at the time of the emergency, are critical data points to understand risk over time.
- Develop an independent health program and registry with broad population data, similar to others such as the World Trade Center Health Program, which offers health monitoring, research, and ongoing treatment for chemical exposure-related long-term physical and mental health conditions at no cost to those affected.
- Make participation in any monitoring program strictly voluntary, and allow participants to withdraw at any time without forfeiting the right to file civil claims.
- Ensure that waste removal processes protect community health.
- Require rail carriers at fault to support independent air, water, and soil monitoring; meaningfully engage community members to obtain their input on response plans; and host public meetings to communicate and translate the results.
The elimination of toxic substances
The threats to life, health, and critical habitats from derailments of trains carrying petrochemicals and other toxic substances are substantial. According to one estimate, “more than 25 million people live within a mile of a crude-by-rail route.” Moreover, trains carrying crude oil typically “pass within a quarter-mile of protected critical habitat for 57 threatened or endangered species.”
Toxic chemicals pose a danger and inequitable burden even when not in motion. Research shows that polluting industries are more likely to be located in low-income and communities of color that also experience greater social stressors that may make them more vulnerable to negative health outcomes from chemical exposures.
These statistics only hint at the daily risks and harms caused by the production, transport, and use of toxic chemicals. The most effective way to reduce the social and environmental damage caused by toxic substances is to reduce or eliminate them from as many products and commercial processes as possible, as quickly as is feasible.
In some cases, there are readily available commercial-off-the-shelf technologies that can replace harmful chemicals, including petrochemicals. For instance, heat pumps can replace home heating oil systems. Increasingly, battery electric vehicles are available to replace traditional internal combustion engines, including for heavy-duty vehicles. The Inflation Reduction Act provides robust incentives to speed the adoption of heat pumps and both new and used electric vehicles, among other important provisions. But there are many other products and industrial processes that need nontoxic solutions.
The U.S. Department of Energy should:
- Continue to encourage and increase funding for research into biological alternatives to fossil fuel-based petrochemicals, such as the Joint BioEnergy Institute led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The department should produce a report on the potential of these feedstocks to serve as nontoxic alternatives at all stages of feedstock production, transportation, product formulation, and decomposition.
- Provide tax incentives to companies that replace toxic chemicals with nontoxic alternatives.
- Require companies to use safer processes and chemicals to reduce the amount of dangerous cargo shipped daily through communities.
- Ensure there is no limitation on the liability of private companies for the release of toxic or hazardous materials, direct the Surface Transportation Board to review how liability is assigned between rail carriers and toxic chemical shippers, and direct the secretary of transportation to verify that rail carriers and toxic chemical shippers have the financial capacity to pay for damages of any future potential toxic releases.
Taken together, these policy reforms will reduce the number and severity of derailments by setting uniform standards for the inspection and tracking of critical train information, including temperature readings of rail car bearings. Expanding chemical testing and long-term health monitoring and access to services will ensure that affected communities receive proper care for any negative health consequences resulting from a toxic spill. And finally, an economywide push to eliminate and reformulate products and processes that rely on toxic chemicals will reduce health and environmental risks, resulting in truly sustainable economic production.
* These results are based on the author’s calculations from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis data sets.