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Commentators Push Unfounded Claims About Ohio Train Derailment

Quick Take  

The derailment of a freight train carrying toxic chemicals in eastern Ohio has sparked a slew of unfounded claims by conservative commentators. There’s no indication that this incident will rise to the level of a “domestic Chernobyl”; it has been covered steadily by the media; federal and state agencies are monitoring air and water quality and its impact on people and animals.

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The Feb. 3 freight train derailment near the village of East Palestine, Ohio — population 5,000 — has continued to draw media and public attention.

The 150-car train was transporting 20 cars that contained hazardous substances when 38 cars derailed about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, apparently due to a mechanical issue with one of the train’s axles.

Days after the crash, officials burned off chemicals carried by the train in an effort to avoid a potential explosion. That fire created a billow of dark smoke over the village, and pictures of it spread on social media.

Those images, paired with concern about the environmental and health impacts from the incident, have fueled a rash of alarming claims.

While concerns about public health and safety are valid, some commentators and social media accounts have ratcheted up unfounded rhetoric about the situation.

For example, conservative commentator Charlie Kirk compared the incident to the 1986 explosion of a Soviet nuclear reactor, telling his 2.6 million Facebook followers, “It could very well be a domestic Chernobyl.”

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ outlet, InfoWars, has also amplified fears about the incident and repeated the common falsehood that there has been a lack of news coverage. “Mainstream media is hardly covering this,” said commentator Harrison Smith.

And Fox News host Tucker Carlson said on the Feb. 15 episode of his show, “Is anyone in charge actually monitoring with any accuracy the level of deadly chemicals in the air, ground, and water in and around East Palestine? Well, no, apparently nobody is.”

There’s no basis for any of those claims.

To start with, there was no nuclear material on the train and the aftermath of the incident is far from the scale of Chernobyl, which required the permanent relocation of about 200,000 people and left 30 people dead in the first three months following the explosion in the spring of 1986. No deaths have been reported from the train derailment.

Second, news coverage of the train crash and its aftermath has been steady in both local and national outlets. The Associated Press, NPR and CNN, for example, each published an article on the crash the day after it happened. Coverage continued throughout the following week and picked up even more in the second week after the crash, according to a search on Lexis Nexis, as claims on social media spiraled.

Third, contrary to Carlson’s suggestion that there’s been little to no testing done, both state and federal environmental officials have been on site, testing both air and water quality.

Here’s what we know so far about the situation concerning some of the most viral claims.

Toxic Chemicals

Of the 38 train cars that derailed, 11 were carrying hazardous substances, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The most prominent chemical on board was vinyl chloride, a gas used to manufacture polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which is used to make plastic pipes, credit cards and shrink-wrap, among other products.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, breathing in high amounts of vinyl chloride can make people dizzy or sleepy, and extended exposure to the chemical is associated with certain cancers, particularly a rare form of liver cancer. Most people are not exposed to much vinyl chloride unless they work with the chemical.

Vinyl chloride is highly flammable, which led the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania to decide to intentionally release it from the five train cars ferrying the material and burn it in a controlled fashion, rather than risk an explosion. Burning the gas, however, produces other potentially harmful gases, including hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide and traces of phosgene.

Phosgene has garnered a lot of attention because the chemical was used as a weapon during World War I. But that involved high concentrations of the gas, which can damage the lungs. At lower concentrations, phosgene smells like freshly cut hay and can irritate the eyes and throat and cause wheezing and coughing.

The Environmental Protection Agency has said the “threat” of phosgene and hydrogen chloride ceased after the fire was put out on Feb. 8, and the agency stopped monitoring for the two gases on Feb. 13.

Other chemicals on the train that were released into the environment include butyl acrylateethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl etheraccording to the EPA. All of these substances are used in making paints, among other products, and can cause irritation and drowsiness or other symptoms if inhaled, touched or ingested.

Another train car was transporting isobutylene, a flammable chemical sometimes used to make aviation fuel, but records indicate the car was not breached.

It remains unclear what the health and environmental impacts of the spilled and burned chemicals will be. However, the EPA has been testing the air and water since Feb. 4, and currently, there are no indications that the air or the village’s municipal drinking water is unsafe.

As of Feb. 19, the EPA is continuing its air monitoring and has tested air samples from 533 homes, finding no cases in which chemicals have exceeded residential air quality standards. 

The agency has noted that butyl acrylate, which has a strong fruity odor, has a low odor threshold, as do other chemicals produced in the controlled burn. “This means people may smell these contaminants at levels much lower than what is considered hazardous,” the EPA explained on its update page for the derailment.

On Feb. 15, the Ohio EPA declared the municipal water “safe to drink,” after tests revealed no detections of “contaminants associated with the derailment” in either treated water or untreated water from the five wells that feed into the village’s water system.

State authorities, however, have said that people who get their water from private wells should use bottled water until their wells can be tested. As of Feb. 19, 52 wells have been tested, and none shows “water quality concerns,” according to federal officials.

Outside scientists say the monitoring results are good, but that testing needs to continue and expand to cover more substances. There are also important questions about how the chemicals will react in the environment and what the health effects might be.

Juliane Beier, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh who studies vinyl chloride, has explained that even levels of exposure that are considered safe may pose risks over time.

“We study concentrations that are currently considered safe, and in our studies, what we have observed is that these low doses can enhance underlying diseases — talking about liver diseases here,” she told Scientific American of her experiments with vinyl chloride in animals.

Beier said the biggest concern with vinyl chloride is that it could escape into the air from untested well water.

“The outdoor air is a little less problematic because vinyl chloride gets dispersed very quickly and broken down by the sunlight, within a few days, it’s a similar situation in the soil or open body of water. However, one of the things I always emphasize if it goes into the ground water and transported to homes and private wells, it is highly volatile, so it can suffuse into air within those closed spaces,” she told a local news station in Pittsburgh. “It comes out of the water, into the air and that’s really the major route of toxicity for the liver. It comes through the air.”

To address the medical concerns of area residents, some of whom have reported developing rashes, headaches and other symptoms, the Ohio Department of Health opened a “health assessment clinic” on Feb. 21.

Reasoning for the Burn

By Feb. 5 — two days after the crash — the potential for an explosion had developed because pressure-relief valves stopped working on some train cars that were carrying vinyl chloride.

“The concern was that this would be catastrophic,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said at a Feb. 14 press conference, explaining that the resulting shrapnel was expected to travel up to a mile.

Norfolk Southern, the rail company that was operating the train, proposed conducting a “controlled release” of the vinyl chloride into prepared pits before being burned off.

The Ohio National Guard together with the Department of Defense modeled the likely effect of the release plan, and, based on that, DeWine and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro ordered an evacuation of the area so that rail workers could begin the process.

“We were faced with two bad options,” DeWine said at the press conference. “One option was to do nothing and wait for the car to explode,” he said, and the other was to release the chemical and burn it.

Officials authorized the burn option and rail workers began the “controlled release” of five train cars carrying vinyl chloride on Feb. 6.

Dead Animals

About 3,500 fish and aquatic species died in four creeks and small waterways near East Palestine in the days after the crash, Mary Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said at the Feb. 14 press conference.

Ron Fodo, of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Emergency Response, looks for signs of fish and checks for chemicals that have settled at the bottom of the creek following the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Photo by Michael Swensen/Getty Images.

Wildlife officers have been working with contractors who are taking samples from the waterways, she said, explaining that they haven’t seen an increase in the number of fish killed since the first couple of days after the derailment.

Officials believe most of the deaths — which occurred primarily in small suckers, minnows, darters and sculpins — were caused by the immediate release of contaminants into the water before mitigation efforts had begun after the crash, according to a release from the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.

“We don’t have any evidence of non-aquatic species suffering from the derailment,” Mertz said at the press conference.

But some residents of the surrounding area have suggested that pets or livestock have been affected by the chemicals released in the crash.

“To this date, there is nothing we’ve seen in the livestock community that causes any concerns to the state,” Dr. Dennis Summers, chief of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Division of Animal Health, said at the press conference.

He explained that anyone who is concerned that pets or livestock have died as a result of the chemicals released in the crash should contact their veterinarian, who can send samples to the state lab for testing.

So far, the lab has received tissue samples from one animal — a 6-week-old beef calf that died on Feb. 11 about 2 miles from East Palestine.

Bryan Levin, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, confirmed to FactCheck.org in an email that this has been the only animal tissue submitted so far and that the results are still pending.

Train Crashes

The crash near East Palestine has highlighted regulatory and safety issues for the rail industry, with some industry watchers and labor representatives pointing to increasing train lengths and changes to braking regulations as factors contributing to potential safety problems.

Some social media posts, though, have gone much further, claiming that there’s been a “suspicious” increase in train crashes recently.

But for the last three years — 2022, 2021 and 2020 — there have been about 9,000 train accidents annually, which includes any collision, derailment or fire, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration. That number is down from an average of nearly 12,000 accidents per year from 2013 to 2019.

The decline in the number of train derailments, however, has been less pronounced. There were 1,049 in 2022, compared with 1,311 in 2013.

And, getting even more specific, the number of derailed or damaged train cars carrying hazardous materials — like the 11 hazmat cars that derailed near East Palestine — has been below 1,000 every year for the last decade. There were 520 such cars that derailed in 2022.

We don’t know how many crashes or derailments there have been so far in 2023; an FRA spokesman told us that data won’t be available until March. But the widely circulating suggestion that there’s been a stark increase recently isn’t supported by evidence, and the most recent data show that there’s been a decrease in accidents overall in recent years.

Clarification, Feb. 22: We changed our characterization of the smaller decline in train derailments, as compared with the decrease in total train accidents.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.


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