Did Control Burn of Toxic Chemicals Make Ohio Train Derailment Worse?

A controlled burn of the train cars involved in the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment on February 3 has some people concerned about the release of toxic chemicals into the air.

The Norfolk Southern Railway train was transporting many toxic chemicals, so officials decided to conduct a controlled burn of the cars a few days after the derailment to release the chemicals under controlled conditions and to prevent an explosion, which would have sent shrapnel flying into residential areas and potentially released toxic chemicals in an uncontrolled way.

However, five of the cars contained vinyl chloride, which becomes hydrogen chloride and phosgene when burned. Phosgene is a deadly gas that was used in chemical warfare during World War I.

Ohio residents living within the area of the controlled burn were urged to evacuate or risk death.

Derailed train, phosgene used in WWI
A controlled burn of a derailed train in Ohio released vinyl chloride into the atmosphere. One of byproducts of burning vinyl chloride is phosgene, which was used for chemical warfare during World War I (inset). Getty

Kimberly Garrett, an environmental toxicologist from Northeastern University, told Newsweek that phosgene is likely the chemical that officials were most worried about.

"It disrupts the interaction between the lungs and the bloodstream," Garrett said. "It makes it so oxygen can't get into the blood and carbon dioxide can't get out."

When hydrogen chloride dissolves in water, it becomes hydrochloric acid.

Entrepreneur Nick Drombosky explained in a viral TikTok video what happens when vinyl chloride burns. He said that officials are deeming the controlled burn a success but that they aren't mentioning all the acid that is now in the atmosphere. However, Garrett told Newsweek that a controlled burn might have been the best of two bad options.

With the high risk of explosion—and also the region's tendency to experience thermal inversions where warm air is trapped by cold air, a phenomenon that could possibly keep deadly chemicals in the atmosphere for longer periods of time—officials likely decided to conduct a controlled burn to release the chemicals in a more ideal environment fit for better dissipation.

"The risk of exploding was so high and the consequences so severe that it's better to do it under controlled conditions," Garrett said.

She compared the controlled burn to shaking a can of soda and then opening it slowly rather than opening it quickly and spewing the contents everywhere. By releasing vinyl chloride into the atmosphere under controlled conditions, officials were able to alert residents in the evacuation zone.

According to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, law enforcement was sent to the evacuation area to urge residents to evacuate three times before the controlled burn. After the burn began, officials monitored the air outside of the evacuation zone to ensure it remained safe.

However, not all living beings were capable of evacuating. Garrett said most of the wildlife deaths in the area, some of which included fish and foxes, were likely as a result of exposure to phosgene. Phosgene has a relatively short half-life, and after air quality monitoring was conducted, the evacuation order was lifted.

However, Garrett said that if vinyl chloride were to get into the water supply, long-term effects were probable—and that knowledge likely influenced officials to conduct the burn before that could happen. Vinyl chloride is a known carcinogen linked to liver cancer. Garrett explained that once in the waterways, vinyl chloride is extremely difficult to clean up.

Emergency services manager and political strategist Ryan Cunningham told Newsweek that despite it possibly being the best option, more notice should have been given to the public.