Fearing a possible explosion from the resulting massive fire, officials evacuated residents in the small eastern Ohio town and in neighboring Pennsylvania. A controlled release of toxic materials from five of the 38 derailed cars was performed on February 6, preventing an explosion.
Approximately 1.1 million pounds of toxic materials – vinyl chloride – were diverted into a trench away from the train derailment and burned off while firefighters extinguished the flames (2). The train carried several additional hazardous materials.
Downtown East Palestine is only one mile from Pennsylvania and about 18 miles from West Virginia. The village was home to 4,761 people in 2020.
Although area residents were permitted to return to their homes on February 8, they are reporting health problems and have expressed worries about lingering pollutants and possible future health complications from exposure to the derailment chemicals (4) (5) (6).
What is the air quality like in East Palestine, Ohio?
As of March 1, 2023, there are no PM2.5 air quality monitors on the IQAir AirVisual platform in East Palestine. App users and visitors of the site who search for the city will find that PM2.5 air quality data is being modeled using satellite data.
PM2.5 air quality monitors on the AirVisual platform utilize a combination of government air quality monitoring and privately-owned air quality monitoring. PM2.5 air quality monitor owners choose to publicly contribute their local data to the community.
Air quality along the Ohio River near East Palestine on February 27, 2023. East Palestine is circled in red. Source: IQAir.
The PM2.5 air quality monitors closest to East Palestine are between 15 and 30 miles away to the southeast and over the Pennsylvania border in Beaver Falls and Beaver. There are also PM2.5 air quality monitors in Wellsville, Ohio about 22 miles away to the southwest.
There are also PM2.5 air quality monitors in Wellsville, Ohio about 22 miles away to the southwest.
Elevated PM2.5 from smoke
In the initial days after the derailment, air quality monitors in Beaver, Beaver Falls, and Wellsville all detected elevated average daily concentrations of the airborne pollutant PM2.5.
PM2.5 is particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns in diameter or less. Sources of these tiny pollutants include vehicle emissions, motor and power plant combustion, and wildfire smoke.
The train derailment fire created plumes of smoke so tall that they were seen by passengers of a flight over East Palestine on February 6 (7).
The average daily PM2.5 concentration measured near East Palestine rose significantly over several days between when the train derailment happened and when the evacuation order ended. On February 3, PM2.5 measured 6 µg/m3 in Beaver and Beaver Falls. By February 8, average daily PM2.5 concentration in Beaver Falls, Beaver, and Wellsville ranged between 20 µg/m3 and 30 µg/m3.
How dangerous is PM2.5?
PM2.5 can become lodged deep inside of respiratory tracts. From there, it can enter the circulatory system and impact all systems of the body. That’s especially true for the smallest particle pollutants, ultrafine particles, which are so tiny they can penetrate even deeper into the body.
Exposure to PM2.5 can lead to both short-term symptoms and longer-term health problems. Short-term symptoms include coughing, mouth, nose, and throat irritation, breathing difficulties, and asthma attacks. Longer-term PM2.5 exposure can cause cardiovascular and respiratory disease, as well as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and heart attacks.
What is vinyl chloride?
Vinyl chloride is a highly flammable colorless gas with a sweet odor (8) (9). It is classified as a volatile organic compound (VOC) and is not naturally occurring. It’s used to manufacture a synthetic polymer of plastic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC). At very cold temperatures, vinyl chloride can become a liquid, and it easily evaporates into a gas at room temperature. Vaporized vinyl chloride is twice as heavy as the surrounding air.
When vinyl chloride burns, it can release hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide, and phosgene. All three toxic gases are hazardous to human health, especially hydrogen chloride and phosgene which are toxic even at extremely low concentrations.
How dangerous is vinyl chloride?
Vinyl chloride is cancer-causing.
Breathing high levels of vinyl chloride can cause dizziness, sleepiness, and headaches. Other symptoms of vinyl chloride exposure include abdominal pain, gastrointestinal bleeding, enlarged liver, and a pallor or bluish-purple coloring of the extremities (10).
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the United States prohibits employees from exposure to vinyl chloride at concentrations greater than 5 ppm averaged over any period, not exceeding 15 minutes (11).
Burned or leaked vinyl chloride could impact soil and water quality through groundwater (12). On February 15, a soil and crop scientist at Cornell University issued a press release urging locals to test soil and waters to avoid human contamination through well water and future crops.
Other hazardous materials
The train was also carrying butyl acrylate, benzene residue, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene. Some of these materials leaked in liquid form into waterways; low levels of butyl acrylate and ethylhexyl acrylate were found in local waterways following the spill (13).
Hazardous materials like butyl acrylate and ethylhexyl acrylate can cause eye, skin, and upper respiratory irritation, cough, shortness of breath, lung damage, and cancer (14) (15).
Natural and man-made disasters can take place anytime and anywhere. One of the best ways to protect against airborne pollutants is to know what’s in the air we breathe.
Organizations and individuals who share their air quality data are the key to better understanding a community’s air pollution threats and take protective actions. If outdoor air quality could impact your indoor air quality, close windows, set your A/C to recirculate, and run a gas-phase air purifierto clean the air.