The release of toxic chemicals from the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, has generated concerns about potential impacts on air and water quality in the small rust belt community and across the Ohio River Basin. Alex Hollingsworth, an environmental and energy policy researcher at Indiana University, detailed the behavior of industrial chemicals released in excess emissions during an interview with The Daily Wire.
Local and state authorities previously evacuated all residents within one mile of the February 3 derailment and started the controlled burn of industrial chemicals on the vehicle to decrease the risk of an explosion, which could have sent shrapnel throughout the small town. Vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen, was emitted from five train cars last week in the form of massive plumes of dark smoke visible throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Hollingsworth primarily researches excess emissions events in Texas, where state laws require companies to immediately report even smaller explosions and chemical releases. Though he does not study vinyl chloride, Hollingsworth noted that researchers consider a variety of factors when determining the possible trajectory of industrial pollutants. A substance released at a smokestack on a windy day, for example, will generally travel further than a substance released at ground level on a calm day, while some compounds interact with materials in the atmosphere.
“There’s a mistake often that people make in their mind when they think, ‘This thing is only emitted here, I should only expect to see effects in a really tiny area around there.’ They’ll get greater concentrations near to the source, but stuff travels really far,” Hollingsworth commented. “It just makes it harder to detect the effect of any one event on health outcomes or even in a pollution reading, but it doesn’t mean that there’s no effect.”
Hollingsworth shared a model with The Daily Wire created with data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing that the greatest low-altitude concentration of particles from the burn were forecasted to travel across southwestern Pennsylvania and the northern portion of West Virginia. High-altitude particles were forecasted to blow across New York, Vermont, Lake Ontario, and southeastern Canada.
Governor Mike DeWine (R-OH) remarked during a Tuesday press conference that air tests conducted by members of the Ohio National Guard sent into the area of the derailment with protective gear purportedly showed that the air quality was “basically what it was prior to the actual train crash.” When asked about the validity of the assertion, Hollingsworth said that the claim could be correct, but noted that the behavior of the particles may be different elsewhere.
“It is totally possible that that claim is true and accurate, and that downwind farther away, concentrations have changed in a way that would be potentially damaging,” Hollingsworth continued. “It is possible that right by the source, air pollution levels as measured did not change very much, but because of the plume where the wind was blowing, there are changes in concentrations that are farther away.”
Hollingsworth said that he has observed increases in mortality linked to excess emission events through his research in Texas. Although one cannot definitively link a particular excess emission to a particular death, the cumulative impact of many smaller chemical releases has a demonstrable impact on public health.
“Events like this happen a lot in small numbers that are less salient,” Hollingsworth remarked. “They don’t have big plumes of smoke and a train derailment is not involved. It’s like, ‘Jim dropped a wrench, and then we had an off-gassing of a few hundred pounds of this chemical.’ They often go unreported, and it’s essentially impossible to link health effects of pollution. They are more common than people would think, and they are a threat to public health and safety.”