Experts say we could see more toxic chemical pollution if policies don’t change

The derailment in Ohio is not the first nor the last time a train carrying hazardous materials will crash in the U.S., according to two Wayne State researchers.

Overhead view of several train cars derailed from the tracks with one on fire. Dark smoke clouds the area

Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed the previous night in East Palestine, Ohio, remain on fire at mid-day on Feb. 4, 2023.

On Feb. 3, 2023, a train owned by the rail company Norfolk Southern derailed just outside East Palestine, Ohio. About 20 of the train cars were carrying a host of toxic substances and materials. The train came off the rails due, in part, to faulty brake lines, and according to railway labor unions, a lack of workplace safety rules and other labor issues.

As of Feb. 16, we know the train was carrying petroleum, vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, butyl acrylate and other extremely hazardous substances. In what are becoming infamous images, the contents of the train were lit on fire by Norfolk Southern, creating a mushroom-like cloud of toxic chemicals above East Palestine. The rail company said igniting the substances was the best way they had to keep the disaster contained, but this is not the end of the damage these chemicals could inflict on the region’s humans, wildlife, pets, soil and water. It’s not the first — and certainly not the last — time a train carrying hazardous materials will crash here in the U.S.

Wayne State University toxic material experts Judy Westrick and Donna Kashian joined CultureShift to discuss the hazards of the substances being carried on thousands of railways all over the country and also here in metro Detroit.

“We need to understand what the risk is, how to minimize that risk and then to respond to minimize [the harm] if there is a problem. I would argue that’s mostly on the industry, and the politicians and the people making it happen.” — Judy Westrick, Wayne State University

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  • Amanda LeClaire
    Amanda LeClaire is an award-winning host and producer of CultureShift on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. She’s a founding producer of WDET’s flagship news talk show Detroit Today, and a former host/reporter for Arizona Public Media. Amanda is also an artist, certified intuitive and energy healer, and professional tarot reader.