CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.
Isobutylene is a colorless gas that comes from natural gas. Its highly reactive nature makes it useful in the synthesis of many products including gasoline, rubber, plastics, resins, and other chemicals. Little toxicity information is known about isobutylene, and no occupational exposure limits are established, but exposure can cause irritation, headache, dizziness, and fatigue. The most dangerous feature of isobutylene is that it has a flash point of -80°C, meaning that above this temperature, it can ignite. As isobutylene is often in the presence of other flammable chemicals, isobutylene ignition can cause large explosions.
On February 3rd, 2023 a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Twenty of the derailed cars contained hazardous chemicals, including isobutylene. Some cars released these chemicals into the surrounding air, soil, and water. On February 6th, Norfolk Southern made the decision to conduct a controlled burn of some of the remaining chemicals. Nearby residents were evacuated because of the health hazard of inhaling the smoke fumes. In addition to the fumes, release of chemicals into the surrounding environment could cause serious health problems. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources found that over seven miles of stream were affected by the chemical spill and thousands of fish died, raising concerns about dangers to residents in a large radius surrounding the spill. EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to identify and clean up contaminated soil and water. However, secrecy surrounding the scale of the accident and a reluctance to test thoroughly for all chemicals of concern has frustrated residents. EPA must prioritize the health of East Palestine residents and work transparently with them to identify and remediate the effects of this train derailment, chemical spill, and fire.