Weeks after the derailment of a 150-car train that was transporting 20 cars of vinyl chloride through East Palestine, Ohio, some have voiced concern over how the aftermath will affect farms, livestock, and water. Of the 38 train cars that derailed during the February 3 accident, 11 were carrying the hazardous substance, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
According to the Ohio Department of Health, vinyl chloride is broken down by sunlight within a few days and transformed into other chemicals, such as formaldehyde. Most vinyl chloride spilled into soil or surface water evaporates in the air quickly; however, some of the chemical can travel into groundwater, where it will be broken down over time. State officials have gone on record saying that the water from the municipal system, which is collected from five deep wells covered by solid steel casing, is safe to drink, Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency has encouraged residents who pull water from private wells to get their water tested. If livestock or irrigation water is sourced from wells, it should also be tested.
Ohio is home to approximately 75,000 farms, 1,470,000 cattle, 2,000,000 hogs, and 115,000 sheep, and some livestock farmers are concerned about the spill; however, state agencies maintain that there is no reason for alarm after the train derailment. “To this date, there is nothing we’ve seen in the livestock community that causes any concerns,” Brian Baldridge, a member of Ohio’s House of Representatives, said in a February 14 press conference.
The state’s agricultural agency has also noted that farm animals face little risk from the toxic chemicals; however, this isn’t true for affected aquatic life. As of February 22, nearly 3,000 aquatic species in nearby waters have died.
Dana Barr, PhD, a professor of environmental health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta, says it’s probably too soon to say that there is no danger to livestock and water. “They have tried to control the spill to keep it from getting into the soil and groundwater, but that happens over time,” she tells Food Quality & Safety. “I think only time and long-term follow up will be able to say if danger exists or not. Given the large amount of chemical spilled and the plumes of smoke from controlled burning, I would be very surprised if there was not an ecological impact in the near long term.”
Dr. Barr believes that officials need to develop and implement a plan for long-term testing and establish a disease registry. “Very often, in disasters such as this, real impacts are not observed for a long time,” she adds. “This derailment involved a large volume of highly toxic chemicals that are carcinogens and teratogens. They could potentially get into the soil and water and ultimately, in plants and wildlife. People who consume the water, plants, or wildlife might have upstream exposures too.”
Ohio governor Mike DeWine has been working closely with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio Farm Bureau, and the Columbiana County Farm Bureau to resolve any concerns.