Vinyl chloride, the chemical released from the site of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, breaks down during combustion into phosgene, a substance used as a chemical weapon in World War I, according to multiple fact sheets from federal agencies.
Local and state authorities evacuated all residents within one mile of the derailment and started a controlled burn of the industrial chemicals on the vehicle to decrease the risk of an explosion, which could have sent shrapnel throughout the small town. Vinyl chloride, a carcinogen used to manufacture PVC, was released from five train cars last week in the form of massive plumes of dark smoke visible throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
According to a list of frequently asked questions shared with East Palestine residents by the EPA on February 9, the agency has been monitoring for phosgene and hydrogen chloride, which are created as byproducts when vinyl chloride is burned.
“Vinyl chloride is a flammable gas and if involved in a fire, it could break down into hydrogen chloride, phosgene, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide vapors when burned. The primary short-term risk of exposure for this incident is inhalation of these vapors,” the fact sheet said. “The monitors were positioned near the incident and several miles away to monitor chemicals of concern. Many of the air monitors were repositioned as necessary to ensure proper placement in reference to current and forecasted meteorological data.”
The EPA directed residents to another fact sheet from the CDC, which noted that phosgene was “used extensively” during World War I as a choking agent, producing “the large majority of deaths” from chemical weapons employed during the brutal conflict.
The substance is “heavier than air” and would be most likely found in low areas. “Poisoning caused by phosgene depends on the amount of phosgene to which a person is exposed, the route of exposure, and the length of time that a person is exposed,” the fact sheet added. “Phosgene gas and liquid are irritants that can damage the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and lungs.”
Residents of the Ohio River Basin are worried about the potential of the substances to contaminate water supplies. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) likewise noted in a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan that “phosgene was used as a weapon during World War I” and expressed concern that the agency has “failed to provide clear guidance” to his state.
Beyond the release of vinyl chloride, Norfolk Southern warned the EPA that a number of other dangerous chemicals were present at the derailment site. One train car containing ethylene glycol monobutyl ether currently has an “unknown status,” according to Norfolk Southern, while the amount of ethylhexyl acrylate in another car is still “pending.” The EPA issued the list of substances only after residents were informed they could return to their homes.
One first responder said in an interview with The Daily Wire that he and his colleagues experienced a “bad cough, headaches, sore throat, and diarrhea” after assisting community members affected by the derailment. Others have reported a lingering smell in the air and the sudden deaths of local wildlife and farm animals.