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Ohio train derailments spark environment concerns across campus

By Jose Hernandez, March 14, 2023

A freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio,  unexpectedly occurred on Feb. 3, causing a chemical explosion, resulting in the burning of extremely hazardous chemicals, evacuation orders and a toxic chemical startle nationwide.  

Despite this incident transpiring 2,392 miles away from campus, this event has geological and environmental science professors alarmed at the consequences Ohio residents must face. Since this unexpected accident occurred, the future of Ohio’s residents health is not measurable but addressing the severity of their situation allows reflection for everyone involved. By addressing proper safety standards and taking the necessary steps moving forward to ensure safety is the top priority above all else.   

There are measures students may implement into learning about the toxicity of these chemicals, as well as learning safer ways to consume water in the event something similar to this occurs in the area. Students may learn new methods of water safety and familiarity with chemical toxicity.  

Geological science Associate Professor of Hydrogeology Stephen Osborn suggested students raise their level of awareness when it comes to water safety.  

“Certainly in Southern California, it’s critical to know about water safety,” said Osborn. “Living in urban areas, there are trains all over. You see petroleum being transported, driving on the freeway, tanker trucks that can spill. In addition to that, we are in a part of the country where there can be a very serious earthquake, even because of that you can still have water issues.” 

Osborn explains how water safety is crucial, especially in the event of an unforeseeable natural disaster. He emphasizes water may look clean to drink, but it doesn’t mean it is necessarily safe to drink, revealing chemistry isn’t always things we can see.  

“For example, after an earthquake you can still have water delivered to your faucet, but it may not be treated water, so you have to be careful, particularly if the pressure coming out of the faucet is low,” said Osborn. “It’s easy to live in an urban area like this and feel like you can turn the faucet on and have safe drinking water, it may not taste very good, but it should be safe.”  

As for gasses released into the environment, Jacey Fortin of the New York Times explains in her article, “Ohio Train Derailment: Separating Fact From Fiction,” the level of toxicity in the chemicals released into the air and water detrimentally effected the atmosphere. She further details the deadly long-term consequences of exposure to vinyl chloride.   

“Vinyl chloride, a colorless gas used in making plastic products,” said Fortin. “The compound, which the EPA has said was on five of the train cars, was of particular concern to authorities in the days following the derailment. The gas causes dizziness, headaches and drowsiness when inhaled in the short term, and a rare form of liver cancer after chronic exposure.” 

Andrea Bonisoli Alquati, an associate professor in the biological sciences department who teaches ecotoxicology, which focuses on contaminants in ecosystems, suggested the plastic making industry revisit its safety standards.  

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“Excessive influence by the industry involved in plastic production to solve this crisis, establishing the responsibility of the plastic industry in lacking safety is also potentially important for resolving and avoiding future accidents such as this,” said Alquati.  

He insisted on the main issue being the lack of safety measures currently in place. By revisiting the way these measures were developed and taking into consideration the chemicals involved in this spill, there needs to be a safety culture in place.  

“Establishing a safety culture, applying precautionary principles so we don’t overuse chemicals until they have been proven safe, how we address chemical safety and human exposure risk and toxicology,” said Alquati. “I can definitely comment on the fact it’s an unbearable burden for toxicologists to have the burden of proof of toxicity because everything is safe until proven otherwise.” 

Osborn explained the way contaminants are considered toxic largely depends on what chemicals are on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list. 

“The EPA puts out drinking water standards that require water to be below a certain concentration to be considered drinkable,” said Osborn. “Some of the contaminants that were spilled in Ohio may not be on that list, so what that means is those chemicals need to be studied to see to what degree they’re toxic and have standards issued.” 

He reiterated the lack of relevant chemicals currently on the EPA’s list of toxic release inventory program, explaining how consequential updating of this list for any future incidents of this sort. By better preparing the relevance of this toxic release inventory program, there will be no outliers or surprises found in the list and ensuring the safety of any city experiencing a chemical disaster of this nature.  

 “The list the EPA has is not complete because it only covers contaminants they’ve studied so far,” said Osborn. “There might be contaminants that are highly toxic, but we don’t know how toxic or mobile they are in the environment. Do they stay where they spilled, or do they migrate? Contaminants move as fluids move.” 

Electromechanical engineering student Amar Dhesi has yet to see how the government is aiding the East Palestine community.  

“I haven’t heard of any solutions to fixing the problem,” said Dhesi. “I know there’s a lot of hazardous chemicals that were spilled into the Ohio river. The government has to give reimbursement to residents in order for them to relocate. They have to clean their water supply. I have only heard about the Ohio derailment incident through social media outlets, such as Instagram and Twitter.” 

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