Experts struggle to gauge potential health impacts of chemical spill in Ohio train derailment


(NEW YORK) — More than a week after hazardous waste was burned by officials from a train derailment in Ohio, the health and environmental impact on the community remains uncertain.

A few of the cars contained vinyl chloride which breaks down into two main byproducts when burned: hydrogen chloride and phosgene.

“Vinyl chloride is classified as a known carcinogen to humans … it has been associated with a rare form of liver cancer called hepatic angiosarcoma. So that’s the main concern with the vinyl chloride,” said Dr. Stephanie Widmer, an emergency medicine physician and medical toxicologist in New York.

Breathing high levels of vinyl chloride can cause dizziness or sleepiness. With even higher levels, passing out or death can occur, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts say determining potential risk after exposure is tricky.

“Usually these things happen with industrial workers. That’s where you’re seeing these types of cancers, for the most part — people who are exposed to levels of the vinyl chloride for a long period of time,” Widmer said.

Hydrogen chloride and phosgene can cause symptoms like eye or throat irritation or even respiratory issues like difficulty breathing.

“It’s always challenging to evaluate the human health risks from a chemical spill and it increases exponentially when those chemicals burn,” said Stephen Roberts, Ph.D., professor emeritus and former director of the Center for Environmental and Human Toxicology at the University of Florida.

In addition to hazardous chemicals, burning any kind of material can create particle pollution — tiny pieces of solid like dust, dirt, soot, or smoke. Breathing in these particles can be harmful to your health, according to the CDC.

Particle pollution has been linked to eye, lung and throat irritation, trouble breathing and associated with lung cancer and problems with babies at birth.

Those with heart disease are especially at risk, as breathing in particle pollution can cause serious problems like a heart attack.

“I would think the worst of it would have been immediately around when the fire occurred and the release occurred and I’d be surprised at new symptoms that would appear at this point,” Roberts said.

Air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern in the community since the fire went out on Feb. 8, according to a statement from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“People should be concerned when things like these do happen, but there’s no need to be hysterically concerned. The EPA is keeping everybody up to date with the information that we need to stay safe,” Widmer said.

Water testing results also showed no detection of contaminants in the wells within the city’s water system, according to a statement released by the Ohio governor’s office.

When asked if he would drink the water on ABC News Live, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine replied, “Absolutely, if I was there right now, I would drink it.”

He then went on to say that residents with private wells should have their water tested.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.