The Ohio Train Derailment: How Pollution Impacts Our Lives

By Lehana Petelo and Jillian Clark

Although the American Lung Association names Maine as one of the states with the cleanest air, we have still had our share of environmental disasters. Until the enactment of the Clean Water Act, Maine experienced countless pollution issues. With this act came the improvement of the air and water.

In the fifty years since the Clean Water Act was passed, the quality of the water has increased significantly. The interim CEO of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Pete Didishiem, says that, “All the towns were dumping in their sewage, and it was just going to the ocean.” And despite the Clean Water Act, the dumping of sewage is something that still affects us. According to the Maine Conservation Alliance, “Maine waters are too often polluted by untreated sewage and stormwater runoff. Hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated stormwater and sewage are discharged into Maine waters every year.”

The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of the Clean Water Act says, “The Clean Water Act (CWA) establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters… The CWA made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained.” This is widely considered one of the most important environmental laws in effect.

Since the Clean Water Act, Maine water has become almost unrecognizable. Before the CWA, chemical discharges and sewage constantly flowed into Maine rivers and reduced oxygen in the water, making it impossible for any kind of life to survive. News Center Maine says, “The sewage, the putrid odors, the brown foam that piled up on the water — they were all familiar to people who lived near the rivers but never, ever swam or fished in them.” It is astronomical safe to say that the Clean Water Act has positively transformed Maine rivers.

Even with some of the cleanest air, Maine is still affected by pollution. The ALA’s “State of the Air” report from 2022 shows that Maine has varying statistics on air pollution. While some parts of the state have seen improvement in the areas of particle pollution and ozone, the ALA says, “The Portland-Lewiston metro area experienced slightly more long-term particle pollution than found in last year’s report.” Even with the betterment of the pollution situation in Maine, there is still much more room for improvement.  

Maine is not the only state affected by pollution. Many other states are experiencing disasters that have become detrimental to nature, wildlife, and humans.  

Cleanup of Ohio Train Derailment
By Environmental Protection Agency –, Public Domain,

On February 3rd, a Norfolk Southern Train derailed near East Palestine, Ohio. The town has a population of 4,800, and luckily no one was injured. The train had 150 rail cars and most carried materials such as cement and steel. Twenty of the rail cars were carrying hazardous materials. Overall, three dozen cars derailed, eleven of which contained hazardous materials. Five of the derailed cars were carrying vinyl chloride, a substance that is an ingredient of PVC, a hard plastic resin used in health care and construction. Inhaling vinyl chloride can cause respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath and neurological symptoms like headaches and dizziness. Chronic exposure to high levels of vinyl chloride has been connected to liver damage and cancer. Other hazardous chemicals, such as ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene were on the train, these can cause irritation and neurological symptoms as well.

There were fears of an explosion because of the rising temperatures, so officials decided to conduct a “controlled release” of the vinyl chloride on February 6th. Officials ordered an evacuation of the town because burning vinyl chloride produces other toxic chemicals like hydrogen chloride. The burned vinyl chloride produced a large cloud of black smoke, and it was extinguished on February 8th. Officials tested the air quality and deemed it safe before allowing residents to return home. Since then, air monitoring conducted by The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not detected any health concerns in the area. In addition to outdoor air monitoring, the EPA has monitored the air inside 500 homes, and there has been no detection of hazardous chemicals identified in the homes. However, many people are concerned and starting to feel ill. Desiree Walker, who lives 900 feet from the trainwreck, said she and her family are feeling symptoms. “At nighttime especially is when we smell it the most,” Walker told WOIO. “Our throats are sore. We’re coughing a lot now. My son, his eyes matted shut.”

People are not the only ones being affected by these chemicals. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources director, Mary Mertz, said that 3,500 fish died as local waterways became contaminated. State officials have not found any evidence of animals other than fish suffering from the chemicals. However, residents have voiced their suspicions about animals like chickens, rabbits, and foxes falling ill. Low levels of chemicals were found at water sampling sites along the Ohio River, but no vinyl chloride was detected in the water. Officials said that the concentrations detected pose no risk to drinking water supplies in the area. “The Ohio River is very large, and it’s a water body able to dilute the pollutants very quickly,” said Anne Vogel, Ohio EPA director. “We’re pretty confident that these low levels are not getting passed onto the customers.” State and local officials urge people with private wells to have their water tested, the EPA said samples have been taken from 28 wells so far.

Categories: Health

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