The Ohio train derailment: How one incident exposed a web of problems


NTSB via Wikipedia

Although train derailments are fairly common, the Ohio train derailment has caused much unrest and discussion.

Josh Thomas, Copy Editor

On Feb. 3, in East Palestine, Ohio, a train derailed after one of its wheel bearings overheated to a whopping 250 degrees Fahrenheit and eventually broke. Even though the train’s crew was notified of this malfunction, it was too late. Eleven cars carrying toxic chemicals had already derailed.

The two main chemicals released in the derailment were vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, but other harmful chemicals such as benzene, ethyl hexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether also spread from the wreckage. Large volumes of these chemicals were spread into the atmosphere, as it was determined that over 115000 gallons of vinyl chloride were lost. 

The local government claims that both the air and water in East Palestine are safe, despite encouraging its constituents to take precautions by drinking bottled water. Citizens would do well to take that advice, as the compounds released have been found to cause liver and lung cancer, issues with the immune system, and sleeplessness.

Pleasant Valley AP Chemistry teacher Abby DeBaillie is familiar with the chemicals that now threaten the people of East Palestine. “In terms of it being a carcinogen, those effects probably won’t be seen on people until the next twenty or thirty years. You might see the upfront effects: irritation of the eyes, and throat, but it’s going to be similar to any other cancer… So it just depends on what your exposure is,” said DeBaillie.

However, humans are not the only ones who will suffer from this incident. Officials from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources say that in the three weeks since the incident, over 43,000 animals have died. More than 38,000 of these deaths were minnows, and the remaining deaths consisted of other aquatic life such as amphibians.

Chemicals like vinyl chloride and water certainly do not mix, as DeBaillie knows.  “It’s like when you have a bunch of grease… it’s not going to mix with water and dilute… because it’s extremely nonpolar. That’s the next problem, and the fact that it’s going to kill all the plants and animals that it touches too,” commented DeBaillie.

The Ohio Train Derailment is far from an isolated incident. Within two weeks of its occurrence, similar events, such as a train derailment and subsequent oil spill in Oregon started to stand out. The reality is that over 1000 trains in the US derail per year, and a chemical accident occurs in the US every two days.

Problems like this are often overlooked by the public eye, as concerned Pleasant Valley student Khushi Mehta believes. “The world around us has been drastically changing, with issues like climate change and political polarization getting worse each day. Society’s decision to ignore it, especially when thinking about the people in power who refuse to act, worries me about the future. I feel that eventually, when people truly feel the consequences of this ignorance, it will be too late to change,” Mehta says.

Mehta’s attitude is shared by many, as 51% of Americans feel that the country is going in the wrong direction. If they want anything to change, however, educating themselves on society’s current issues will be the first step.