It’s been nearly three weeks since a train came off the rails in Ohio, causing the evacuation of the nearby town of East Palestine and threatening an environment that includes some of the most important waterways in North America.
Now, local residents are reporting a range of concerning ailments – symptoms that they fear are connected to the release of toxic chemicals caused by the derailment.
What is vinyl chloride?
The train had more than 140 cars, around 50 of which were affected by the incident on February 3. Of these, 20 were carrying hazardous materials. Chief among those of concern was the vinyl chloride being transported within 14 of the cars – a compound listed by the EPA as a Class A known human carcinogen.
Once used in a variety of contexts – including as a refrigerant, and, more alarmingly considering its toxicity, as an inhaled anesthetic – vinyl chloride is now used almost exclusively in the production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). However, while this common plastic may have its drawbacks, a vinyl chloride spill is much more hazardous: it is hard to contain, can contaminate the local environment, and cause acid rain. It’s also extremely flammable under normal temperatures and pressures.
To avoid a catastrophic explosion, officials opted for a controlled burn of the gas, creating a plume of black smoke that hung over East Palestine for days. Within a few days, however, residents were given the all-clear to return to the area, after EPA air monitoring confirmed concentrations of the toxic chemicals had fallen below hazardous levels.
But since returning home, local townspeople have reported coming down with a worrying selection of illnesses, ranging from rashes and sore throats to nausea, headaches, and even trouble breathing.
What illnesses are caused by vinyl chloride?
Given its brief use as an anesthetic, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the first signs of vinyl chloride exposure are symptoms like headaches, dizziness, sleepiness, and eventually, unconsciousness.
Longer-term or higher-level exposure, however, is known to be extremely dangerous. “[Vinyl chloride] is a well-established animal and human carcinogen,” noted a 2012 paper published in the Journal of Carcinogenesis. “It is most strongly associated with liver cancer, in particular the rare, sentinel neoplasm of liver angiosarcoma (LAS), a malignant tumor of the endothelial cells of the liver.”
This isn’t new information, either – people have known about the toxicity of vinyl chloride on the liver since 1930, when the very first study into the compound’s safety found that just one single short-term high dose of vinyl chloride could cause liver damage in test animals. More recently, a 2019 study found that in a cohort of nearly 1700 workers in an Italian vinyl chloride plant, almost one in three deaths that occurred were from some form of liver cancer or cirrhosis.
The problems don’t stop at just that organ. Vinyl chloride is now known to be mutagenic: it can cause chromosomal aberrations and DNA damage via sister chromatid exchange, as well as mutations to specific genes associated with increased cancer risk.
As early as 1983, researchers had already confirmed that “the target organs for [vinyl chloride] now clearly include the liver, brain and the lung, and probably the lymphohematopoietic system [relating to the production of lymphocytes and blood cells, bone marrow, spleen, lymph nodes, and thymus].”
Short of cancer, there are other illnesses associated with exposure to the chemical: it also affects the body’s circulatory system, being linked to Reynaud’s Phenomenon and capillary modifications – one 2013 study found that factory workers dealing with vinyl chloride were seen to have abnormalities of their blood vessels – including enlarged capillaries, dystrophy, and augmented capillary length – even 15 years after exposure.
Even more gruesome are the reports of bone resorption among those exposed to the chemical, especially factory workers. In fact, so common are health complaints among vinyl chloride plant workers that, for a long time, the bizarre collection of complaints arising from exposure to the compound was literally known as “vinyl chloride illness”.
For one of the starkest illustrations of vinyl chloride’s effects, look no further than the 1983 study which concluded that, out of 200 workers at a factory producing the compound, only 58 – that’s barely more than one in four – considered themselves free of health complaints at the end of the study period.
Is vinyl chloride to blame for the symptoms in East Palestine?
With so many potential health problems arising from exposure to the compound, it’s easy to see why the residents of East Palestine are concerned. But according to specialists, the situation is too complicated to point the finger at just one chemical.
“[It] is a major challenge,” Erin Haynes, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Kentucky, told CNN. “The community is now exposed to a mixture of numerous petroleum-based volatile organic compounds, so it may not just be one, it could be the mixture of them.”
That’s because, while the controlled burn of vinyl chloride may have averted a catastrophic explosion, it also released a whole host of other potentially hazardous substances into the air. These include phosgene and hydrogen chloride, both of which are created when vinyl chloride burns in oxygen and can cause irritation and death.
As well as that, the EPA has advised that substances such as butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether acetate, and 2-ethylhexyl acrylate may also be in the area. Any and all of these chemicals may change or react with other things in the environment – meaning that the area is now effectively home to a lucky dip of potential toxins.
Nevertheless, local officials have declared the area’s water and air to be safe – announcements that come despite claims from residents of a “chemical smell" that was "so strong that it made me nauseous” and reports of thousands of dead fish washing up in creeks around the region.
“We know the science indicates that this water is safe, the air is safe,” Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said Friday. "But we also know very understandably that residents of East Palestine are concerned.”
With reports of symptoms continuing to grow, the state is to open a health clinic Tuesday for concerned residents, with medical teams from the US Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Department of Health on the ground to assess any remaining dangers.
“[The people of East Palestine] need all the help they can get,” Haynes told CNN. “This is a major emergency. This is a major disaster. They need all the assistance that we all can provide.”