Chemical Exposure and Contaminated Water from Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio

Chemical Exposure and Contaminated Water from Train Derailment in East Palestine, OhioDead fish. Dead chickens. Plumes of toxic, billowing smoke. A water advisory. Every day, new stories arise about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, a tiny town with fewer than 5,000 residents on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Every day, we learn more about the effects of vinyl chloride gas on our air, land, and water.

At Soroka & Associates, we have very serious concerns about not only the derailment – as all Ohioans do – but also about the way the evacuation and return of residents has been handled at every level. The controlled release and burn of deadly, flammable, toxic chemicals is very likely to result in long-term health consequences for residents and their families.

A quick recap of the East Palestine, OH train derailment

A Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed on February 3, 2023. Thirty-eight train cars derailed, and another dozen were damaged as a result of a fire.

Fear of an explosion led to evacuation orders by Governor DeWine as well as Governor Shapiro in PA; those orders, which affected anyone within a one-by-two mile area around the town, were lifted on February 8, 2023. The order was lifted because the air quality samples were fine, but tellingly, residents were “encouraged” to drink bottled water. Specifically, the order from Governor DeWine said, “evacuated residents in and around East Palestine can now safely return home” (emphasis ours).

But we don’t know that anyone is safe in this area. Seven-and-a-half miles of streams have been affected. At least one pet cat has died, and other pets appear to be getting sick. Governor Justice in West Virginia is also monitoring the northern panhandle of West Virginia, ABC News reports, because the toxins spilled into the Ohio River.

We are not the only ones concerned. Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials (HAZMAT) specialist and  is a former Battalion Chief with the Youngstown Fire Department, told WKBN 27 that some of the chemicals released from the derailment and by officials through that controlled release could still be present in homes. Residents will need to clean everything to get rid of them. “I was surprised when they quickly told the people they can go back home,” he said, “but then said if they feel like they want their homes tested they can have them tested. I would’ve far rather they did all the testing.”

What caused the train derailment in East Palestine, OH?

Initial estimates, according to WKBN, “show preliminary indications of mechanical issues on one of the railcar axles,” and Michael Graham of the National Transportation Safety Board said the train crew “did receive an alarm from a wayside defect protector shortly before the derailment indicating a mechanical issue. Then an emergency brake application initiated.”

The investigation is still ongoing, and likely will be for a long time.

What dangerous chemicals have been released by the train derailment?

The train was carrying the following chemicals:

  • Vinyl chloride, an explosive, flammable gas. Per the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), exposure can irritate the eyes, mucous membranes, and respiratory tract; acute exposure can affect the central nervous system. Symptoms include “dizziness, ataxia, inebriation, fatigue, numbness and tingling of the extremities, visual disturbances, coma, and death.” Chronic exposure can cause liver cancer or injury, neurological changes, and “changes to the skin and bones of the hand.” Per NPR, vinyl chloride is carcinogenic, and “breaks down from sunlight within a few days and changes into other chemicals such as formaldehyde.”
  • Butyl acrylate, another flammable gas that can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract. It can cause corneal necrosis (tissue death) if it is not washed out quickly. Long-term, chronic exposures can also affect the central nervous system.
  • Benzene residue, left over in cars that were previously carrying benzene. Long-term benzene exposure has been linked birth defects, seizures, cancer, and death.
  • Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, an explosive chemical that causes skin irritation and potential risks to the central nervous system. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and World Health Organization (WHO), “a harmful contamination of the air will be reached rather slowly on evaporation of this substance at 20°C,” which is 68°F, and must be kept in airtight containers toa void any contact with foodstuffs.
  • Ethylhexyl acrylate, which Caggiano told WKBN is a carcinogen that “can cause burning and irritation in the skin and eyes. Breathing it in can irritate the nose and throat and cause coughing and shortness of breath.” Even the EPA doesn’t know what kinds of chronic health effects it may have, though lab studies showed liver and kidney lesions in rodents.
  • Isobutylene, a volatile, combustible substance which has been known to cause frostbite, central nervous system damage, and unconsciousness at high levels. The ILO and WHO’s description for disposal states “Evacuate danger area! Consult an expert! Ventilation. Remove all ignition sources. Do NOT wash away into sewer. NEVER direct water jet on liquid. Personal protection: chemical protection suit including self-contained breathing apparatus.”
  • Hydrogen chloride, a corrosive substance that can cause skin and eye irritation (minor exposure) or pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) or even death.
  • Phosgene, a chemical used during WWI as a “choking agent,” per the CDC, because it affects the respiratory system. Long-term exposure can be fatal, but short-term exposure can be damaging, too. Note that it can take up to 48 hours for the effects to be felt.

But when they leech into the soil and the water, how safe is the bathwater, really? How can you clean your home if the toxins are in the water you use? How can you be safe outside if they’re in the ground your children play on? And how can you trust the reports when your eyes are burning, pets are dying, the whole town smells like a swimming pool, and every day the news seems to report on new chemicals that were also released?

Why this issue is much bigger than the derailment

There seems to be potential that more people will be affected in Ohio, PA, WV, and any states into which our streams and rivers flow. It appears to be a common belief that anyone who works with the land – farmers, gardeners (professional and hobbyist), landscapers, fishermen, and others could see their livelihoods affected. We don’t know what kinds of effects this will have on a pregnancy or on small children.

Many of these chemicals can affect the central nervous system with long-term exposure. Just because the EPA says the air is clean doesn’t mean folks aren’t being exposed. CNS damage can cause seizures, palsy, and brain damage. It can affect mobility and communication. We all know the effects of long-term lead exposure in children; what is to say our children may not face similar effects from these chemicals in their water?

What legal options do residents of East Palestine and the surrounding areas have?

Lawsuits have already been filed against Norfolk Southern, claiming the company’s negligence led to the derailment. Lawsuits have already been filed by individuals and business owners who sustained damage to their property, suffered losses to their business revenue, and are seeking compensation for their physical and emotional distress. If you were affected by the train derailment, you can also file a lawsuit to recover damages.

In 2017, regulations for trains carrying dangerous, explosive liquids were rolled back because – and this is not a joke – the cost for the train companies to replace their brakes was too high for them. The rollback was praised by fuel and chemical manufacturers, but once again, it is the average American who must live with the cost.

What kinds of damages can you seek in a lawsuit?

If you or your loved ones suffered harm or losses, you can seek compensation for economic and non-economic damages through a lawsuit. That means you could be entitled to compensation for:

  • Any medical costs associated with the derailment and chemical exposure, including medication costs, hospital and doctor visits, co-pays, and any additional costs.
  • Any wages you lost from being unable to go to work while under evacuation orders.
  • Any property damage you sustained, including the costs to clean your home, vehicle(s), and clothing. You may also be able to claim veterinary expenses as Ohio recognizes both pets and working animals as property.
  • Any educational losses for your children, such as costs for private education if the school was closed, or the cost of hiring a tutor to help your child catch back up.
  • Your anxiety mental distress, enjoyment of life, physical pain/impairment, and inability to perform everyday tasks as a result of the derailment may also be compensable.

There is also a strong argument to be made for punitive damages, which are awarded to punish wrongdoing.

Soroka & Associates wants to help you get justice

Soroka & Associates can help you file a lawsuit for losses you sustained because of the train derailment and subsequent exposure to toxins. Our attorneys are licensed to practice in Ohio and Federal courts, have experience practicing in Columbiana County, and have the resources, skill, and experience to handle the complex litigation that will arise from these claims. This train derailment may result in a class action. Class action lawsuits are different from typical civil lawsuits; they require a different skill set which our attorneys possess. If you wish to file or join a class action, or file your own personal lawsuit, we can help.

Soroka & Associates is based in Columbus but serves people throughout Ohio, including Columbiana County and the residents of East Palestine. This is not a fight you want to take on alone; let us be your advocates. Please call us or fill out our contact form to schedule a free consultation with our team.