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Explainer: What to Know About the Ohio Train Derailment

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This infographic explains the Ohio train derailment and potential impacts of the chemicals involved

Explainer: What to Know About the Ohio Train Derailment

What started out as a seemingly commonplace train derailment near the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania in early February escalated into a serious threat to more than 4,000 people in the immediate area. Millions of people living in the vicinity of the derailment are also watching this situation closely as chemicals have made their way into the air and waterways.

Vinyl chloride, which was being transported on a number of the 150 train cars owned by Norfolk Southern, is a key cause for concern in the aftermath of the derailment. The chemical is a known carcinogen, and is dangerous when released into the environment.

In this piece, we’re providing a timeline, an explainer on the chemicals being carried by the train, the impact zone of the derailment and release of said chemicals, and the other basics you need to know.

What Was the Train Carrying?

The company that owns the train, Norfolk Southern, released a document detailing the train cars and what each carried, as well as whether or not it was damaged and/or derailed. Here are the highlights:

Car TypeLoad/MTYCommodityHaz ClassStatus of Car
HopperLoadedPolypropylene Not in derailment pile
HopperLoadedPolypropylene Not in derailment pile
HopperLoadedPolyethylene lading destroyed by fire
HopperLoadedPolyethylene lading destroyed by fire
Tank CarEmptyResidue lube oil scrap pending C&P
Tank CarLoadedVinyl chloride, stabilized2.1 (FLAM. GAS) car did not leak/cars vent product through the PRD and ignited/vent and burn performed
Tank CarLoadedVinyl chloride, stabilized2.1 (FLAM. GAS) car did not leak/cars vent product through the PRD and ignited/vent and burn performed
Tank CarLoadedVinyl chloride, stabilized2.1 (FLAM. GAS) car did not leak/cars vent product through the PRD and ignited/vent and burn performed
Tank CarLoadedVinyl chloride, stabilized2.1 (FLAM. GAS) vent product through the PRD and ignited/vent and burn
Tank CarLoadedDipropylene glycol fire impingement/no signs of tank breach
Tank CarLoadedPropylene glycol flame impingement, no tank breach found
Tank CarLoadedPropylene glycol tank breached/lost most of load
Tank CarLoadedDiethylene glycol had small leak from BOV, unknown amount of product in car
Tank CarLoadednos (ethylene glycol mono butyl ether) COMB. LIQUID unknown status
HopperLoadedSemolinain pile, destroyed by fire
Tank CarLoadednos (Ethylhexyl acrylate) COMB. LIQUID Car breached on head end/amount of product still in car pending
HopperLoadedPolyvinylburned
HopperLoadedPolyvinylactively burning
Tank CarLoaded Petroleum lube oil double comp car/both breached/entire load lost
Tank CarLoadedPetroleum lube oil tank breached/lost most of load
Tank CarLoadedPetroleum lube oil flame impinged, may have had a small leak/will be determined when car is off loaded
Tank CarLoadedPetroleum lube oil flame impinged, small leak from top fittings, unknown amount left in tank
Tank CarLoadedPolypropyl glycol flame impinged, tank breached/ most of load lost
Tank CarLoadedPropylene glycol flame impinged, no signs of breach
Tank CarLoadedDiethylene glycol flame impinged, tank breached/ load lost
Tank CarLoadedDiethylene glycol flame impinged, lost unknown amount at this time from damaged BOV
Tank CarLoadedIsobutylene 2.1 (FLAM. GAS) some flame impingement/no signs of breach
Tank CarLoadedButyl acrylates, stabilized 3 (FLAM. LIQUID) Head breach/lost entire load (spill& fire)
Tank CarLoadedPetro oil, necflame impinged, small leak from VRV stopped, car still loaded
Tank CarLoadedAdditives, fuelflame impinged, no sign of breach
HopperLoadedPolyvinylinvolved in fire
HopperLoadedPolyvinylinvolved in fire
Tank CarLoadedVinyl chloride, stabilized 2.1 (FLAM. GAS) car did not leak/cars vent product through the PRD and ignited/vent and burn performed
Box CarLoadedBalls, CTN, MEDCL burning or has burned
Box CarLoadedSheet steelburning or has burned
Box CarLoadedFrozen vegetableburning or has burned
Tank CarEmptyBenzene3 (FLAM. LIQUID) damaged, fire impinged/ no breach
Tank CarEmptyBenzene3 (FLAM. LIQUID) damaged, fire impinged/ no breach
Tank CarLoadedParaffin waxflame impingement/no signs of breach
Hopper LoadedPowder flakesburned, extinguished
Hopper LoadedPowder flakesin line, upright, impinged
Hopper LoadedHydraulic cement
AutorackLoadedAutos passender
Box carLoadedMalt liquors
Box carLoadedMalt liquors
Box carLoadedMalt liquors
Box carLoadedMalt liquors
Box carLoadedMalt liquors
Box carLoadedMalt liquors
Box carLoadedMalt liquors
Box carLoadedMalt liquors
Box carLoadedMalt liquors

Aside from dangerous chemicals, the train was carrying things like sheet steel, semolina, cement, malt liquor, and paraffin wax.

The Threat of the Chemical Substances

  • Vinyl chloride: a gas which is commonly used to make PVC plastics. It is extremely flammable and produces toxic fumes when burned. It is also carcinogenic and can cause a myriad of health issues.
  • Butyl acrylate: a liquid used for making sealants, adhesives, and paints. It can cause skin, respiratory, and eye irritation.
  • Benzene residue: benzene is a highly flammable liquid. It is used to make things like rubbers, plastics, and dyes. It evaporates extremely quickly into the air and if exposed at high levels, it can cause dizziness, unconsciousness, tremors, irregular heartbeat, among other symptoms.
  • Ethylhexyl acrylate: a liquid used to produce plastics and paint. It can cause respiratory and skin irritation. It can also produce a hazardous vapor under appropriate heat.
  • Ethylene glycol monobutyl: a liquid that is primarily used as a solvent for inks and paints, as well as dry cleaning solutions. It is acutely toxic and can inflict serious or permanent injury. Vapors from the liquid can irritate the nose and eyes, and, if ingested, can cause vomiting and headaches.
  • Combustible liquids

According to the CDC, many of these substances are frequently transported across the U.S.; benzene, for example, ranks in the top 20 chemicals by production volume in the country.

The Timeline

Friday, February 3rd: The train, which was heading from Madison, Illinois to Conway, Pennsylvania, was carrying various products from frozen vegetables to industrial chemicals. Near East Palestine, Ohio, just before the Pennsylvania border, 38 of the train’s 150 train cars derailed and subsequent fires caused damages to another 12. Additionally, 11 of the derailed train cars carried hazardous material, the most dangerous being vinyl chloride.

The derailment caused a large fire and ominous plumes of smoke over East Palestine, but there were no fatalities or injuries. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the cause of the derailment is still under investigation.

Saturday, February 4th: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) crews began running air pollution and water runoff tests. They detected contaminated water in two streams, Sulphur Run and Leslie Run.

Sunday, February 5th: The EPA and Norfolk Southern’s contractors continued testing, and recovery efforts were underway at the contaminated water sites.

Monday, February 6th: Responders conducted a controlled burn of toxic materials to destroy the remaining vinyl chloride, which posed a threat of explosion and subsequent toxic fumes and shrapnel. Because of this the standing evacuation order was extended to include a larger area. From the Ohio governor’s announcement:

“The controlled release process involves the burning of the rail cars’ chemicals, which will release fumes into the air that can be deadly if inhaled. Based on current weather patterns and the expected flow of the smoke and fumes, anyone who remains in the red affected area is facing grave danger of death.” – Mike DeWine

Wednesday, February 8th: Just days later, the governor announced that it was safe for residents to return home as air quality tests were coming back clean.

In the last week: Reports have been coming in of people feeling symptoms related to the release of toxic chemicals. Additionally, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, reported that 3,500 fish were found dead in Ohio waterways as a direct result of the spill from the train derailment.

The EPA, however, has screened the air quality inside more than 400 homes, finding levels to be safe. A statement from the regional director of the EPA said that: “Since the fire went out on February 8, EPA air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment.”

On Wednesday, the 15th, Norfolk Southern representatives pulled out of a meeting with town officials, causing outrage among residents. The following day, EPA administrator, Michael Regan, visited East Palestine to quell the anger and fears, but residents are still unhappy and skeptical of the testing.

The largest remaining issue is that water quality connected to the Ohio River, which is still being monitored. The governor has recommended only drinking bottled water.

The Overall Impacts

The town of East Palestine is home to just over 4,000 people and the crash happened dangerously close to the city of Pittsburgh, PA. Contamination in the water supply have led to the deaths of thousands of fish and people are now complaining of reactions to the chemical leakage.

Norfolk Southern has set up an Assistance Center and donated over $1 million to help people cover costs of evacuation, as well as conducting extensive testing of air and water quality. The governor is now calling for tighter regulations on rail companies and a number of lawsuits have been filed against Norfolk Southern.

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Environment

The Most Polluted Cities in the U.S.

What are the most polluted cities in the U.S. according to data from the American Lung Association’s 2024 State of the Air Report?

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Teaser image for an infographic showing the most polluted cities in the U.S. according to the American Lung Association's 2024 State of the Air report.

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The following content is sponsored by National Public Utilities Council

The Most Polluted U.S. Cities in 2024

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is responsible for 7 million deaths annually, and could cost the global economy between $18–25 trillion by 2060 in annual welfare costs, or roughly 4–6% of world GDP.

And with predictions that 7 in 10 people will make their homes in urban centers by mid-century, cities are fast becoming one of the frontlines in the global effort to clear the air.

In this visualization, we use 2024 data from the State of the Air report from the American Lung Association to show the most polluted cities in the United States.

What is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is a complex mixture of gases, particles, and liquid droplets and can have a variety of sources, including wildfires and cookstoves in rural areas, and road dust and diesel exhaust in cities. 

There are a few kinds of air pollution that are especially bad for human health, including ozone and carbon monoxide, but here we’re concerned with fine particulate matter that is smaller than 2.5 microns, or PM2.5 for short. 

The reason for the focus is because at that small size, particulate matter can penetrate the bloodstream and cause all manner of havoc, including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and chronic pulmonary disease. 

The American Lung Association has set an annual average guideline of 9 µg/m³ for PM2.5, however, the World Health Organization has set a much more stringent limit of 5 µg/m³.

The 21 Worst Polluted Cities in the U.S.

Here are the top 21 most polluted cities in the U.S., according to their annual average PM2.5 concentrations:

RankCity, StateAnnual average concentration, 2020-2022 (µg/m3)
1Bakersfield, CA18.8
2Visalia, CA18.4
3Fresno, CA17.5
4Eugene, OR14.7
5Bay Area, CA14.3
6Los Angeles, CA14.0
7Sacramento, CA13.8
8Medford, OR13.5
9Phoenix, AZ12.4
10Fairbanks, AK12.2
11Indianapolis, IN11.9
12Yakima, WA11.8
13Detroit, MI11.7
T14Chico, CA11.6
T14Spokane, WA11.6
15Houston, TX11.4
16El Centro, CA11.1
17Reno, NV11.0
18Pittsburgh, PA10.9
T19Kansas City, KS10.8
T19Las Vegas, NV10.8

Note: The American Lung Association uses Core Based Statistical Areas in its city and county rankings, which have been shortened here to the area’s principal city, or metro area in the case of the Bay Area, CA.

Six of the top seven cities are in California, and four in the state’s Central Valley, a 450-mile flat valley that runs parallel to the Pacific coast, and bordered by the Coast and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. As a result, when pollution from the big population centers on the coast is carried inland by the wind—cities #5 and #6 on the list—it tends to get trapped in the valley. 

Bakersfield (#1), Visalia (#2), and Fresno (#3) are located at the drier and hotter southern end of the valley, which is worse for air quality. The top three local sources of PM2.5 emissions in 2023 were farms (20%), forest management / agricultural waste burning (20%), and road dust (14%). 

Benefit to Economy

While the health impacts are generally well understood, less well known are the economic impacts.

Low air quality negatively affects worker productivity, increases absenteeism, and adds both direct and indirect health care costs. But the flip side of that equation is that improving air quality has measurable impacts to the wider economy. The EPA published a study that calculated the economic benefits of each metric ton of particulate matter that didn’t end up in the atmosphere, broken down by sector. 

SectorBenefits per metric ton
Residential Woodstoves$429,220
Refineries$333,938
Industrial Boilers$174,229
Oil and Natural Gas Transmission$125,227
Electricity Generating Units$124,319
Oil and Natural Gas$88,838

At the same time, the EPA recently updated a cost-benefit analysis of the Clean Air Act, the main piece of federal legislation governing air quality, and found that between 1990 and 2020 it cost the economy roughly $65 billion, but also provided $2 trillion in benefits

Benefit to Business

But that’s at the macroeconomic level, so what about for individual businesses?

For one, employees like to breathe clean air and will choose to work somewhere else, given a choice. A 2022 Deloitte case study revealed that nearly 70% of highly-skilled workers said air quality was a significant factor in choosing which city to live and work in.

At the same time, air quality can impact employer-sponsored health care premiums, by reducing the overall health of the risk pool. And since insurance premiums averaged $7,590 per year in 2022 for a single employee, and rose to $21,931 for a family, that can add up fast. 

Consumers are also putting their purchase decisions through a green lens, while ESG, triple-bottom-line, and impact investing are putting the environment front and center for many investors.

And if the carrot isn’t enough for some businesses, there is the stick. The EPA recently gave vehicle engine manufacturer Cummins nearly two billion reasons to help improve air quality, in a settlement the agency is calling “the largest civil penalty in the history of the Clean Air Act and the second largest environmental penalty ever.”

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