Toxic Chemical Exposure – East Palestine, Ohio

Toxic Chemical Exposure – East Palestine, Ohio

On February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine Ohio, spilling hazardous chemicals into the environment, contaminating the soil, water, and air. As the freight trains burned for 48 hours, concerns of an explosion grew, which lead to an authorized controlled burn to  contain the blaze.

This controlled burn sent a thick cloud of black smoke into the air and nearby residents were told to evacuate to reduce risk of toxic exposure from vinyl chloride, one of the hazardous chemicals spilled in the wreckage. Burning vinyl chloride also produces other toxic substances such as hydrogen chloride, ethylhexyl acrylate, butyl acrylate, and the highly toxic gas, phosgene.

Vinyl Chloride

A colorless gas that burns easily, vinyl chloride is used primarily to make Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC).

PVC  is used in the making of a variety of products including pipes, packaging materials and wire cable coatings. Vinyl chloride is also a by-product of tobacco smoke. People exposed to secondhand smoke at risk of vinyl chloride exposure. 

Highest levels are typically found around factories where vinyl chloride is produced, or in instances of spillage like with the Ohio Train Derailment in East Palestine, Oh.

It is estimated that over one million pounds of vinyl chloride were released into the air and surrounding environment after it was found that Norfolk Southern drilled holes directly into the vinyl chloride cars, allowing the carcinogen to spill out. One report claims that more vinyl chloride was released in the environment during this disaster than all industrial facilities in 2021 combined.

Risks Associated with Vinyl Chloride Exposure:

  • Liver cancer
  • Brain cancer
  • Lung Cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Leukemia

Burning Vinyl Chloride

Vinyl chloride is carcinogenic on its own, but when it burns, its properties are altered and creates toxic gases hydrogen chloride and phosgene, which are then released into the air.

Hydrogen Chloride

Hydrogen chloride is a gas that has a pungent odor, yellowish in color, or sometimes colorless.

When exposed, it irritates skin, nose, throat, and eyes. In severe cases prolonged exposure hydrogen chloride can cause pulmonary edema, circulatory system failure, and even death. Chemical burns are possible if it comes in contact with skin.


Phosgene is a highly toxic gas that has as “fresh cut grass” or musty hay smell. Perhaps most notably used as a chemical weapon during the first World War, phosgene was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. Once exposed to phosgene, symptoms may not appear for up to 48 hours.  According to the CDC these are the signs and symptoms of phosgene exposure:

  • Coughing
  • Burning sensation in the throat and eyes
  • Watery eyes
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Skin contact can result in lesions similar to those from frostbite or burns
  • Following exposure to high concentrations of phosgene, a person may develop fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema) within two to six hours.

Butyl Acrylate

Butyl acrylate is a colorless liquid with a fruity odor. Typically used in paints, coatings, fuel, plastics, adhesives, etc., it’s flammable, reactive, and containers may explode in fire.  Upon contact, butyl acrylate can irritate and burn the eyes and skin, and irritate the throat, nose, and lungs. Butyl acrylate can cause headache, dizziness, nausea,  and vomiting. Repeat exposure can use permanent lung damage.

As of February 16, 2023, low levels of butyl acrylate were found in the Ohio River. It’s believed that Little Beaver Creek, which is a tributary along the Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia border, carried butyl acrylate from East Palestine, Oh. It has also been reported that soil near the site of the accident has been contaminated. 

Ethylhexyl Acrylate

Like butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate is colorless with a pleasant odor and also used to make plastics. When exposed, it irritates the eyes and skin. If inhaled, it can cause respiratory issues, drowsiness, and convulsions.

2-Butoxyethanol (Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether)

2-Butoxyethanol is a colorless liquid, with a mild odor.  A solvent used in paint strippers, thinners, household cleaners, it can irritate the eyes, and skin, and harm the kidneys and blood

On February 8, 2023, the fire was extinguished, and residents were told it was safe to return home. In a statement released by the EPA,  air monitors have not detected “any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment” and of the nearly 400 homes screened, “no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride were identified.” Monitoring of this area is on-going. The EPA and Ohio EPA continue to test the soil and ground water for potential drinking water contaminants. 

However, now more than two weeks after the fire, residents claim to have developed fevers, rashes, sore throats, headaches, and nausea. It was also reported by the  The Ohio Department of Natural Resources that an estimated 3,500 fish have been killed.

Class Action Lawsuit Against Norfolk Southern

The class action lawsuit against Norfolk Southern proposed that Norfolk Southern did not clean up the spill properly, and instead chose to authorize a controlled burn of the chemicals spilled, exposing the surrounding communities to vinyl chloride, phosgene gas, hydrogen chloride and other toxic chemicals. The lawsuit alleges that residents exposed may see effects for years to come and may be subject to  DNA mutations and future cancer diagnoses. 

Lawsuits are seeking money for medical monitoring and future testing to make sure that those exposed do not suffer from cancers or other diseases as a result of the derailment. Those living within a 30-mile radius of East Palestine may qualify. This could include all or parts of:

  • Youngstown, OH
  • Beaver County, PA
  • Lawrence County, PA
  • Mercer County, PA
  • Butler County, PA
  • Allegheny County, PA  
Benjamin Duer, “Norfolk Southern Released 1.1M Pounds of Vinyl Chloride After Derailment, Lawsuit Alleges,” USA Today Network (February 2023). [Link]
National Cancer Institute, “Vinyl Chloride,” (November 2022). [Link]
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), “Hydrogen Chloride,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (June 2019). [Link]
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Facts about Phosgene” (April 2018). [Link]
Liz Nastu, “Recent Train Derailment Contaminates Ohio River with Butyl Acrylate,” Environmental & Energy Leader (February 2023). [Link]
Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet (April 2017). [Link]
National Center for Biotechnology Information (2023). “PubChem Compound Summary for CID 7636, 2-Ethylhexyl acrylate,” (Retrieved February 21, 2023). [Link]  
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), “2-Butoxyethanol,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (June 2019). [Link]
United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Statement from Regional Administrator Debra Shore on the East Palestine Train Derailment” (February 2023). [Link]
Aria Bendix and Uwa Ede-Osifo, “As Residents Near Ohio Train Derailment Begin To File Lawsuits, Some Report Lingering Coughs Or Chest Pain,” NBC News (February 2023). [Link]
Maddie Aiken, “Lawsuit: Thousands of Western Pa. residents at risk after Ohio train derailment. “Tribune Review” (February 2023). [Link]


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