Forever chemicals: the Ohio train crash that will never be forgotten

What’s happening? The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has told rail company Norfolk Southern to temporarily halt shipments of contaminated waste from the site of a train crash in East Palestine, Ohio. The move is due to concerns that dangerous chemicals could be released into the environment further afield after it was revealed that hazardous waste disposal facilities near Houston and Detroit were planning to take most of the contaminated water and soil from the crash site. The train operator had been solely responsible for the removing the waste, but this will now be subject to EPA review and approval. (The Guardian)

Why does this matter? The train, which derailed on 3 February, was carrying vinyl chloride to produce PVC plastic. Tests conducted by the EPA have found that chemicals in the soil and water around the crash site include vinyl chloride, benzene, phosphene, volatile organic compounds (VOC), and particulate matter. Independent experts suggest it is likely that dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and per-and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) are also likely to be contaminating the site, alongside other similar dangerous compounds.

Questionable disposable of toxic substances – It was revealed that Norfolk Southern had been sending contaminated soil from around the crash site to a nearby incinerator that has historically violated clean air violations. Incinerating soil is particularly risky as some contaminants, such as PFAS and dioxins, either cannot be incinerated or are not easy to incinerate.

Additionally, around 1.5 million gallons of contaminated water have been sent to a facility near Houston, where it will be injected into wells deep inside the Earth’s crust. These wells can leak waste into groundwater and could cause earthquakes. Some contaminated soil has also been sent to a landfill site in Michigan, which has been known to discharge PFAS into public sewers.

Health risks from PFAS – PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” as they do not breakdown easily over time, are a particular health concern, with two types – perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) – having been linked to certain cancers, liver, kidney and thyroid disease, gestational hypertension, and reproductive and developmental problems, among other conditions.

 PFAS detected at high levels across Europe – Research conducted across around 17,000 sites across the UK and Europe detected PFAS at concentrations of over 1,000 ng/l of water at 650 sites, and above 10,000 ng/l at another 300. Meanwhile, a study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that wild-caught US freshwater fish are far more contaminated with PFOS than those caught in oceans, with the highest levels found in fish from the Great Lakes. Eating a single portion could be the equivalent of ingesting highly contaminated water every day for a month.

Investors pressure chemical firms – A group of 47 investors managing $8tn in assets, including Aviva Investors and Storebrand Asset Management, have written to 54 of the world’s major chemical companies urging them to phase out the production of PFAS. US-based manufacturer 3M has already pledged to stop producing them by 2025, while outdoor retail brand REI has recently said it will ban the use of the chemicals in all textile and cookware products from its suppliers starting in autumn 2024.

Inflation Reduction Act could worsen pollution – Some researchers and activists have raised concerns that several provisions of the $369bn Inflation Reduction Act – designed to provide funding for projects aiming to mitigate climate change and improve environmental health – could actually increase the amount of farm-related pollution being washed into waterways and groundwater. This is because the legislation promotes corn-fed ethanol refineries and manure-based energy production that may unintentionally raise the amount of pollution from fertilisers and faecal matter.

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