Ohio train derailment likely not expected to cause health effects for Ontarians

By Tina Yazdani and Meredith Bond

Experts say a train derailment in Ohio earlier this month that sent fumes of several toxic chemicals in the air should have little effect on people in Ontario.

About 50 cars were derailed in East Palestine on Feb. 3 as a train carried various products from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania.

Norfolk Southern, a transportation company, said 20 of the more than 100 cars were classified as carrying hazardous materials. The derailment prompted an evacuation as fears grew about a potential explosion of smouldering wreckage.

It’s been confirmed that 14 cars carrying vinyl chloride were involved in the derailment and were exposed to fire. Vinyl chloride — a clear, flammable gas used to produce plastics — can cause liver cancer in high doses. Lower doses, specifically over long periods, could pose health risks to humans.

East Palestine is about 500 kilometres from Toronto and 370 kilometres south of Niagara Falls.

Residents in the East Palestine area have reported health concerns like headaches and irritated eyes, but Ontario residents can breathe a sigh of relief.

Miriam Diamond with the University of Toronto’s Department of Earth Sciences said the hazard of the chemicals drops off quickly.

“There’s a tremendous dilution that occurs even just within a relatively short distance of the location. So the people at greatest risk are in the immediate vicinity,” Diamond told CityNews.

RELATED: Environment Canada monitoring possible ‘impact’ of toxic fumes in Ontario after Ohio train derailment

Some videos have gone viral on social media showing discoloured snow melting in Ontario, but Diamond said it’s doubtful it is related to the Ohio train derailment.

“The snow is discoloured as it picks up fine particles deposited in the air. That always happens regardless. Look at the snow beside your driveway or beside a heavily trafficked road. It’s consistent. It gives us an idea of what’s in the atmosphere,” said Diamond.

“So, it would be too much conjecture to say that discoloured snow in southern Ontario [is connected.] We have so many of our emissions to account for that discoloration.”

Despite that, environmental groups are watching the possible impacts on Ontarians closely.

“The problem with these chemicals is they’re invisible,” said Karen Wirsig with Environmental Defence Canada. “It would be prudent to test water and snow samples just to see if this tragedy affected us in Ontario.”

Environment Climate Change Canada (ECCC) tells CityNews they are actively monitoring the potential environmental impacts in Ontario.

“ECCC is aware of the Feb. 3, 2023, train derailment in the town of East Palestine, Ohio, U.S.A., which caused a major explosion and release of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals,” a spokesperson for Environment Canada said.

Ontario is five to seven-and-half hours from Ohio by car and borders the province across Lake Erie. Though it’s unclear how the explosion could impact Ontarians, Canada’s weather agency said that vinyl chloride typically only lasts in the atmosphere for less than 24 hours.

“ECCC takes pollution incidents and threats to the environment very seriously. ECCC is monitoring the impact of the Ohio train derailment,” the government agency said in a statement.

Sabaa Khan, a Director General with the David Suzuki Foundation, said it might not stay in the air for long, but there are other things to look out for.

“Vinyl chloride … it might not stay in the air for very long, it dissolves in a couple of days, but it is highly mobile in water, it is highly mobile in soils, and it can infiltrate groundwater systems and stay there for years,” Khan noted, calling this incident “a preventable tragedy.”

“Ten years ago, almost the same thing happened in Lac Magentic in Quebec, where we saw a railroad safety being compromised, and the impacts were a major disaster from an environmental and health point of view,” said Khan.

“I think this is a failure on the part of the regulatory oversight and enforcement of safety laws.”

She adds it will be critical for governments to be transparent about monitoring their residents.

“I think the U.S. government as well as the Canadian government, local governments, all need to be very clear and transparent about what is being monitored, what instruments are being used, what contaminants they’re looking at, and that will determine the efficacy of their actions,” said Khan.

“I think that there’s a role for citizens for communities that are affected that may be concerned to pressure governments to provide that information.”

With files from Lucas Casaletto

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