Almost two weeks have passed since the derailment of the train carrying toxic substances in Ohio, in the United States, and the population of East Palestine, the town closest to the crash site, continues to be concerned, also due to some false news or unverified circulating about the damage it would cause.
On February 3, a freight train made up of about 150 wagons derailed following probable mechanical problems: 50 wagons were involved in the accident, 10 of which were carrying flammable substances, the most dangerous of which was vinyl chloride, a toxic gas which it is used to produce PVC plastic and vinyl products. The derailment caused a first fire and on February 6 the authorities carried out a controlled release of the toxic substances contained in five of the wagons, and then set them on fire, in order to avoid explosions. This fire caused a large cloud of smoke, which was photographed and filmed and posted on social networks, causing concern.
The area around the crash site had been evacuated soon after the derailment: more than 1,500 residents were told to leave their homes, and schools and roads were closed. Prior to the controlled fire on 6 February the evacuation order had been extended. On February 8, after carrying out tests on the air quality and finding that the amount of contaminants was below threshold levels, the authorities had allowed them to return to their homes.
However, the decision was judged hasty by many people and later the residents began to raise doubts, stating that they had not been fully informed about what had happened and the possible risks associated with the spread of toxic substances in the air.
On February 16, the president of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Michael Regan, personally went to the small community to try to reassure the residents, but the visit was met with skepticism and anger. There is a considerable gap between the reassurances that the various local and federal bodies have repeatedly expressed, even bearing precise scientific tests as evidence, and the problems that part of the local population is complaining about. In particular, cases of red eyes, a strong and persistent smell of paint, apparent minor illnesses of pets have been reported: problems that are not serious, but which are greeted with some fear for possible long-term effects on health.
Vinyl chloride is carcinogenic, intended exposure can cause dizziness, drowsiness and headache, prolonged exposure can cause liver problems and a rare liver cancer. However, the surveys carried out in the air and in the water before authorizing the return of the residents did not report potentially dangerous levels of toxic agents: on February 16, the EPA announced that after analyzing air samples collected inside 486 homes found neither vinyl chloride nor hydrogen chloride, another substance that can cause serious respiratory problems.
Residents also brought testimony of the deaths of some 3,500 fish of twelve different species in the river that flows south of East Palestine. On Feb. 14, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said it had found two contaminants in some tributaries of the Ohio River, but that wastewater treatment plants would have to remove them. Authorities reported that toxic elements could exist for fish but not for people and that the lingering odor was not necessarily a sign of toxicity in the area. However, they advised drinking water from plastic bottles for a certain period of time, as a precaution.
The reassurances have not convinced all the inhabitants of East Palestine and at least eight legal actions have already been announced against the Norfolk Southern railway company, through collective class-actions, by citizens, who complain of having been exposed to possible toxic substances and denounce persistent psychological stress which in some cases would have made it impossible to sleep.
Beyond the legitimate concern of the inhabitants and probable errors in communication, the case of the train derailment has also become the subject of political speculation and online exploitation. Without bringing real evidence, many commentators on social media have called the episode “the most serious environmental disaster in history”, the accident has been called “Chernobyl 2.0”, recalling the 1986 nuclear accident in the then Soviet Union. Many right-wing or far-right media – including the popular Fox News – used the incident to attack the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden and spread some conspiracy theories regarding the alleged desire to hide the real extent of the incident.
State and federal authorities are currently supporting further investigations into possible health and environmental impacts, while Republican Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has announced that the Department of Public Health will set up a temporary clinic so that any residents who experience problems can be assisted, even without medical insurance. Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board, the US investigative agency that deals with transport safety, has launched an investigation to precisely establish the causes of the derailment.