July 13, 2024

This coverage is made possible through a partnership between Grist and WBEZa public radio station serving the Chicago metropolitan region.

On February 3, 2023, a freight train owned by Norfolk Southern carrying thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals derailed in the town of East Palestine, Ohio. For days, flames engulfed the rail cars, which contained highly hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, used in the manufacture of plastics. A thick, towering plume of black smoke billowed from the crash site, forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents. Now, scientists say that traces of this pollution were found in 16 statesspanning 540,000 square miles from Wisconsin to Maine to South Carolina.

“Everyone expected a local contamination issue,” said David Gay, coordinator of the National Atmospheric Deposition Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author of the new study. “But I think what most people don’t understand about this fire is how big it was and how extensive its implications are.”

Gay and his colleagues tracked the contamination from the fire by testing rain and snow samples from about 260 sites across the country in the two weeks after the derailment. The analysis, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, estimates that the fire in eastern Ohio affected about 14 percent of the U.S. land area and one-third of the country’s population, or 110 million people.

Across these areas, researchers have recorded some of the highest soil pHs, or alkaline soil, and levels of chloride ions in the past decade following the fire in East Palestine. Gay said the elevated readings documented during the two-week surge were certainly unusual, not dangerous. “It popped out like a red light,” Gay said. “I never would have guessed it would have been in Wisconsin, no way in hell.”

“This study is unique and elegant because it clearly documents the impact these types of accidents can have,” said Juliane Beier, a leading expert on the effects of vinyl chloride at the University of Pittsburgh who was not involved in the study. Washington Post. “I think we should be concerned,” she continued, noting that this is not the first time researchers have observed far-reaching pollution from local disasters.

Of the 38 train cars that derailed in East Palestine, at least 11 were carrying highly toxic chemicals. To prevent a possible explosion, officials approved the controlled burning of five cars’ worth of vinyl chloride, a colorless, flammable gas and known carcinogen.

Residents of East Palestine were allowed to return home about a week later. Upon their return there were reports of strong chemicals smells pervades the town. Testing at nearby creeks and rivers revealed high levels of toxic compounds, including vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate. A year later, the environmental cleanup in and around East Palestine has already cost Norfolk Southern close $800 million.

Gay remembers seeing a photo of the plume rising over East Palestine and piercing the clouds. “When I saw it, I was like, oh yeah, this stuff is going to come a long way,” he said.

When Gay and his colleagues began their research, they expected pollution in western New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The reality, he said, was much more comprehensive. A low pressure system helped push pollution over parts of Michigan and Wisconsin. Pollution has likely made its way to all of the Great Lakes except Lake Superior, he noted.

The most extreme measurements were recorded on the New York border with Canada, near the town of Freedonia – downwind and about an hour and a half from East Palestine.

The researchers also found traces of the train derailment pollution as far south as Virginia and South Carolina. There is a whole swath of the region running from Illinois through Maryland where it was too dry to collect pollution data. Even so, Gay maintains that chemical traces from the fire probably got to those areas too, just not through the rain or snow.

“This accident was not just in Ohio,” Gay said. “It affected a lot of people.”

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