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Daily News Blog

17
Feb

Train Tragedy Highlights Law’s Failure to End Use of Needless Toxic Pesticides and Co-formulants

(Beyond Pesticides, February 17, 2023) The February 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in Ohio has been huge news. Less well known perhaps is that 20 of the 50 cars involved were carrying hazardous materials, defined by the National Transportation Safety Board as “cargo that could pose any kind of danger ‘including flammables, combustibles, or environmental risks.’” The incident resulted in a huge fire, evacuations, and worries about explosions and discharge of toxic chemical gases; on February 6, officials conducted “controlled releases” of some of the chemicals. Some of the toxic chemicals involved are precursors to production of synthetic pesticides.

[Eds. Note: We are deeply concerned for the victims of this terrible crisis who are asking legitimate questions about contaminated drinking water and the effects of both the initial acute exposure after the derailment, resulting in the release of toxic chemicals, and long-term exposure to low levels of toxic residues in homes and the environment.]

Among the compounds on board those 20 cars were “inert” pesticide ingredients (vinyl chloride, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene), an antimicrobial compound (ethylene glycol monobutyl ether [EGBE]), benzene (a carcinogenic solvent), and butyl acrylate. This event brings into high relief the cradle-to-grave issues that travel with pesticide (and broad chemical) dependency, including disasters such as this one, and subsequent threats to health and the environment — which are never part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) calculus in registering pesticides. The Ohio derailment also adds to the case for getting off the toxic pesticide treadmill, which would reduce transport of such compounds.

Air quality readings within a mile of the site were begun soon after the event. Evacuation orders were lifted on February 8 because officials indicated that air quality was safe enough for people to return to their homes. The Washington Post reports that environmental officials, as of February 14, were saying that ongoing “air monitoring done for the railroad and by government agencies — including testing inside nearly 400 homes — hasn’t detected dangerous levels in the area since residents were allowed to return. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has shared air monitoring results online.”

Nevertheless, some residents continue to have concerns not only about contaminated air, but about potential contamination of their drinking water; Ohio Environmental Protection Agency officials insist the water has been protected and is safe. Yet, others, including Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, delivered a different message, leading to heightened confusion and frustration among residents. As The New York Times (NYT) reported, “State officials have continued to recommend that some residents drink bottled water as testing continues in private wells, municipal water, and streams, and fears have percolated over the possible dangers of long-term exposure to the chemicals.”

Understandably, area residents are worried about toxic chemicals in their air or water or soils. And as with many concerning public events, social media has spread both sound information and some that is decidedly not. In speaking to The Washington Post, one resident summed up what many people are feeling and thinking: “For a small town, we have to trust them [i.e., officials], because what else do we have to do? We have to trust that they are not lying to us.” The paper quoted Peter DeCarlo, an environmental health professor at Johns Hopkins University: “The biggest question remaining is what, if anything, is still being released from the site, first and foremost. If there are still residual chemical emissions, then that still presents a danger for people in the area.”

Indeed, just prior to publication of this Daily News Blog article, the NYT reported that hundreds of residents gathered in a school gym on the evening of February 15 for what had been billed as a “town hall” meeting about the disastrous event. But Norfolk Southern officials failed to show up, and the format was changed to one of state, county, and local agency officials sitting at separate tables around the room and fielding individual questions so that the whole group was not privy to the questions or answers. None of this went over well with the crowd, which was animated in demanding answers to their concerns and angry at railroad officials’ absence; the mayor ultimately switched back to a town hall format.

The NYT elaborated: “We have become increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties,’ a spokesman for the railroad company said, though the nature or origin of the threats was unclear. The spokesman added: ‘We are not going anywhere. We are committed to East Palestine and will continue to respond to community concerns.’ On Wednesday, that was clearly not enough to satisfy the throngs of people gathered in the gym, who shouted demands to know where the company was. Citing the statement from the company, one man stood up and declared, ‘We’re scared, too.’”

Possibly caused by an overheated wheel bearing, the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio (near the Pennsylvania border) has been described by some experts as a potentially huge, unfolding environmental disaster, with much about the health and environmental impacts still to be determined via ongoing investigations. The incident looms as even more alarming, given that at least one train derails every day in the U.S. Although most trains carry multiple kinds of cargo — the Norfolk Southern had, e.g., frozen vegetables, autos, and medical cotton balls on board — they also typically have one or more hazardous materials in tow. According to The Guardian, “About 4.5m tons of toxic chemicals are shipped by rail each year and an average of 12,000 rail cars carrying hazardous materials pass through cities and towns each day, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.” In 2022, train accidents resulted in releases of hazardous chemicals 11 times, down from 20 times in 2018 and 2020.

Perhaps the most-memorable recent rail disaster was the 2013 explosion and fire from 72 rail tankers of petroleum crude oil that erupted in Lac-Megantic, Quebec (near the western Maine border). In that event, 47 people died and 26,000 gallons of oil contaminated the Chaudiere River. Also in 2013, a crude oil train exploded on collision with a derailed train full of grain; luckily, this happened in a relatively unpopulated North Dakota area. 2005 saw the crash, in South Carolina, of a train carrying chlorine gas (a chemical highly poisonous to skin and the respiratory tract).

California’s worst train debacle happened in 1991 near Dunsmuir, when roughly 19,000 gallons of metam sodium, a highly toxic pesticide still used as a fungicide and herbicide, flowed into the Sacramento River near the iconic Mt. Shasta. Nearly every living organism in a 38-mile stretch of the river died from the chemical’s toxicity; fortunately, the river and its inhabitants were largely restored within three to four years, according to California Department of Fish and Game spokesperson Mark Stopher. These are just a handful of transportation accidents that released toxic chemicals, harming (and sometimes killing) people, and contaminating the environment.

The menu of toxic chemicals on board the Norfolk Southern train was an unsavory one. Of greatest concern has been vinyl chloride, a highly flammable compound used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics; when exposed to sunlight, it generates toxic gases, including formaldehyde. When burned, vinyl chloride becomes hydrogen chloride and phosgene; the latter is a deadly gas that was used in World War I chemical warfare, and is used in the manufacture of plastics and pesticides.

To boot, any vinyl chloride that seeped into the trench soil can persist for long periods and continue to volatilize, and can migrate into groundwater. Exposure to it has acute effects on people, and can lead to cardiovascular, developmental, hepatic, and immune problems, and to some nasty cancers. After three rounds of evacuation efforts, the five cars carrying it were breached by emergency responders who discharged the chemical to a trench and burned it.

Northeast University environmental toxicologist Kimberly Garrett explained the extreme concern about phosgene: “It disrupts the interaction between the lungs and the bloodstream. It makes it so oxygen can’t get into the blood and carbon dioxide can’t get out.” The wildlife deaths in the area, including fish, squirrels, turtles, and foxes, were likely caused by phosgene. She added, “The risk of exploding was so high and the consequences so severe that it’s better to do it under controlled conditions,” and suggested that, because of the potential for long-term effects of vinyl chloride (with its carcinogenic impacts) migrating into groundwater (where it is notoriously difficult to clean up), officials likely opted for one of two bad options — a controlled burn rather than the explosive and migratory risks of leaving it alone.

Butyl acrylate is an explosive and flammable liquid used in manufacturing sealants, adhesives, and paints; it can lead to skin, eye, and respiratory irritation. Ethylhexyl acrylate is used similarly, and can cause the same kinds of irritation, as well as gastrointestinal problems if ingested; it is also a potential human carcinogen. Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether (EGBE) is neurotoxic; it can lead to irritation of the skin, nose, and throat, damage to red blood cells, hepatic, renal, and reproductive harms, and vomiting after exposure. Isobutylene is used in many industrial applications, is highly flammable, and is neurotoxic.

One might reasonably wonder why such dangerous chemicals (some of which are on their way to becoming pesticides) are allowed to be transported by rail through populated areas and vulnerable environments alike. The reality is that this is the chemically dependent state of the world (and for pesticides, of most agriculture and land management). The manufacture of pesticides and plastics (and many other products) requires that toxic chemicals be transported . . . somehow.

Rail has often been considered preferable to (and cheaper than) trucking or flying. Long-haul trains, after all, do much of their travel through non- or less-populated areas, whereas trucks on crowded highways present their own significant safety risks, and planes filled with toxic chemicals would be, more or less, flying bombs (and a very pricey form of transport). In the wake of this tragic derailment, some public health advocates say it should be a wake-up call on the potential for far-more-deadly freight rail accidents, particularly in light of the petrochemicals (e.g., ethanol and other fuels) and their chemical derivatives that are transported by rail.

The Guardian reports, “By one estimate, 25 million Americans live in an oil train blast zone, and had the derailment occurred just a few miles east, it would be burning in downtown Pittsburgh, with tens of thousands of residents in immediate danger. Ineffective oversight and a largely self-monitoring industry that has cut the nation’s rail workforce to the bone in recent years as it puts record profits over safety is responsible for the wreck, said Ron Kaminkow, an Amtrak locomotive engineer and former Norfolk Southern freight engineer.

‘The Palestine wreck is the tip of the iceberg and a red flag,’ said Kaminkow, who is secretary for the Railroad Workers United, a nonprofit labor group that coordinates with the nation’s rail unions. ‘If something is not done, then it’s going to get worse, and the next derailment could be cataclysmic.’”

These toxic chemicals are generally deemed necessary to “modern life.” But there are, at least for pesticides and their precursor and ingredient compounds, other and better options. One would be for EPA to take into account, in its evaluation of pesticides for registration, the very real cradle-to-grave issues related to pesticide use — including transportation disasters that seriously threaten health and the environment. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) — the base federal statute that controls pesticide regulation — requires that pesticide use “will not generally cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.” The statute defines “unreasonable adverse effects,” in part, as “any unreasonable risk to man [sic] or the environment, taking into account the economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits of the use of any pesticide.”

A protective reading of this statute and definition would cause EPA to evaluate such risks from “cradle to grave,” meaning from the sourcing of chemical ingredients through their manufacture, transportation, use, and ultimate disposal. The disaster in Ohio is a glaring example of EPA’s failure to use a protective and precautionary approach; instead, the agency’s history often shows an industry-friendly, conservative reticence to do so.

Another, and far more systemic, effective, and sustainable, way to resolve our toxic chemical morass is known, doable, and scalable: a transition to organic, regenerative agricultural practices that would remove synthetic pesticides and fertilizers — synthesized from many of the dangerous chemicals that get transported by rail every day — from the materials stream, as well as curtail their ongoing impacts on human health, the food system, ecosystems and habitats, and the biodiverse living organisms that are so at risk now. Everything we value — safety, life, health, environment, biodiversity, and more — demands that we get off this toxic chemical treadmill.

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2023/02/05/east-palestine-ohio-train-derailment/

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

 

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