Getting Answers: air quality concerns following Ohio train derailment

On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, OH.
Published: Feb. 20, 2023 at 3:03 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 20, 2023 at 4:45 PM EST
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AMHERST, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, OH. The chemicals, including vinyl chloride, were released and burned during a controlled release, which covered the area in clouds of thick black smoke.

We asked Western Mass News Meteorologist Dan Brown if those chemicals could make their way to the east coast. He told us if we were to see any smoke or other pollutants in the atmosphere in Massachusetts, they would’ve arrived in the days right after the derailment.

“If something occurs on the west coast, it’s going to be up over us in a matter of days, like three or four days. This is near Pennsylvania, the explosion happened two weeks ago. You would think if we were going to get effects from this in our area in terms of air quality, it would’ve already occurred by now,” Brown explained.

We also spoke with UMass Amherst Environmental Health Sciences Professor Richard Peltier. He told Western Mass News that even if traces of the chemicals that burned in Ohio were detected in Massachusetts, they would have diluted in the atmosphere by the time they made the over 500-mile trip to the Bay State, meaning they would pose little to no health risks.

“There is an old adage that we say is the solution to pollution is dilution. That’s one way to solve pollution. That’s essentially what has happened here,” Peltier explained.

He went on to say very small traces of vinyl chloride, not related to the train derailment, can be found in our area, which pose the same health risks as living near heavily industrial or high-traffic areas.

“The concentrations, as I pointed out, are very, very low. They’re not even above what we would call background, so if you’re near a busy roadway or near an industrial source, you’re going to have similar kinds of pollutants that might be coming out. This is going to add to that, but it’s a tiny amount relative to what we have more locally,” Peltier noted.

While Peltier said we’re safe from any health risks in Massachusetts, the situation is much different for those in close proximity to the toxic chemicals. He says those exposed to low levels of the pollutants over a long period of time have a greater risk of developing cancer.