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When train crashes leak harmful chemicals, small town firefighters can be vulnerable

Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3 remained on fire the next day.
Gene J. Puskar
Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3 remained on fire the next day.

More than 90 million tons of hazardous materials are transported on American railroads a year. The trains rumble by towns at all hours, blaring their horns. Chemicals potent enough to kill people or lead to cancer can be sloshing around inside.

Accidents that result in the release of hazardous materials are rare, but when trains do crash, the consequences can be serious. Most of the recent ones that caused evacuations have happened near small communities, NPR found. Local firefighters who respond are uniquely vulnerable to the effects. But across the country, they are often under-prepared to handle the chemicals when they come off the tracks.

It happened in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3. At least 1.1 million pounds of carcinogens were emitted, a federal lawsuit has alleged, after 11 cars with hazardous materials derailed and caught fire. Hundreds of the village's approximately 4,700 residents fled their homes as the East Palestine Fire Department did its best to respond to the scene. The department employs just one full-time firefighter – the rest are volunteers. It took more than six hours after the initial derailment for firefighters trained in flammable liquid emergencies to arrive from nearby East Liverpool.

Over the past decade, 18 train accidents leaked hazardous chemicals and led to the evacuation of 200 or more people. Most of those communities had less than 5,000 residents. And in most cases, the closest fire department to each incident was composed of volunteer or mainly volunteer firefighters, NPR found after mapping data from the Federal Railroad Administration and the U.S. Fire Administration.

Firefighters must follow detailed requirements specific to each chemical regarding what equipment they should wear and what distance they should maintain from an accident in order to be safe. It helps when they have hands-on training about how to respond to those kinds of events, indicated Jamie Burgess, who helps lead the hazardous materials training department of the International Association of Fire Fighters. But he believes that type of instruction is uncommon even among professionals.

"The fire service as a whole in the United States is woefully under-trained and woefully under- equipped to respond to a large-scale hazmat incident like this," said Burgess. "Training specific for railroad emergencies is not where it needs to be right now."

Responding to emergencies like the one in East Palestine can be expensive. Norfolk Southern, the railroad company involved with the trains that derailed in Ohio, reimbursed the East Palestine Fire Department for just over $800,000 in equipment used in response to the February accident. That's more than double the amount of money the small fire department received for a whole year from the city, from property and income taxes.

East Palestine employs one full-time firefighter. Other fire departments from surrounding areas provided assistance on the night of the accident.
Dustin Franz / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
East Palestine employs one full-time firefighter. Other fire departments from surrounding areas provided assistance on the night of the accident.

Firefighters can also struggle to access screening and relevant health information after exposure, NPR found.

Five of the train cars involved in the East Palestine accident contained vinyl chloride, a highly toxic chemical known to be linked to liver, brain and blood cancers. At least one car containing the carcinogen was among those that caught fire and emitted their contents as first responders rushed to the scene. Any exposure to vinyl chloride carries a risk of cancer – and the higher the exposure, the higher the risk.

Firefighters who responded in East Palestine are "certainly at risk of having cancers in a few decades," said Dr. Tony Musu, a senior researcher at the European Trade Union Institute, where he has studied chemical risks to workers.

Exactly how much of the chemical workers took into their bodies, however, is unknown – but not because tests to measure it do not exist. There are breath, urine and blood tests available. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) limits exposure for employees who work with the chemical in industrial settings to no more than about the equivalent of a few drops of water inside a standard size bathtub filled to the top. When their exposure passes that low limit, employers are required to physically examine their staff. Blood serum samples are required to be taken and tested.

The rules that apply to firefighters can seem unclear. In Ohio, firefighters who are government employees must follow federal OSHA regulations because a state program requires it, an OSHA representative confirmed. But other states have devised their own safety regulations that can be different from federal ones. And an OSHA commissionerhas said before that the federal rules don't apply to volunteer firefighters. Another group, the National Fire Protection Association, sets broad standards for firefighters across the U.S. Those standards, however, don't address vinyl chloride. The group doesn't set permissible limits or testing levels for exposure to the chemical, a representative confirmed.

East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick speaks with community members about safety concerns at a town hall meeting on Feb. 15.
Alan Freed / Reuters
East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick speaks with community members about safety concerns at a town hall meeting on Feb. 15.

Among first responders who work with hazardous materials, there appears to be little knowledge of the tests available to monitor vinyl chloride levels. A director of the International Association of Fire Fighters confirmed he had never heard of a test for vinyl chloride before NPR reporters mentioned it in an interview. And though his team may have been exposed to the hazardous material in February, even the chief of the East Liverpool Fire Department, William Jones, said he had not heard that a test for vinyl chloride existed before NPR asked him whether he or his firefighters had taken it.

"It's difficult to find answers," Jones wrote to NPR in an email. "It doesn't appear health screening of firefighters and or first responders are on anyone's top priority list right now."

In February, the mayor of East Palestine, Trent Conaway, told The Business Journal of Youngstown, OH, that firefighters from surrounding departments would be tested for heavy metals for the next seven years. But by March, no one had reached out to Jones about that, he said. Jones doesn't anticipate receiving financial help to take care of screenings for his team, and believes the fire department will have to draw from its own funds to pay firefighters to test for a range of potential conditions.

Since tests for vinyl chloride are not accurate if not performed shortly after exposure, those are now of little help to Jones or any of the other firefighters on the scene.

At this point, "that's useless," said Musu. "It makes sense to try to do those tests immediately after the exposure, not one month or two months later."

After a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train on Feb. 6., black plumes of toxic chemicals were released into the air.
Gene J. Puskar / AP
After a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train on Feb. 6., black plumes of toxic chemicals were released into the air.

Norfolk Southern, the rail company worth more than $48 billion, confirmed it did not provide residents from East Palestine with tests for vinyl chloride. A spokesman said that "air monitoring was established quickly following the derailment and never indicated the need for such testing."

The danger of more firefighters being put at risk in another town is high, indicated Burgess, the hazardous materials instructor.

"The training is not there and most definitely the equipment is not there. And quite frankly, the personnel are not there," he said. "Much more needs to be done to prepare firefighters for these types of incidents."

Norfolk Southern has announced it will open a center in the state that will offer free training for first responders in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. But towns elsewhere hoping to also prepare in advance for future derailments might not have access to hazmat route information. Railroad companies have to disclose the routes of trains carrying hazardous materials to the Federal Railroad Administration, but the agency does not share that information publicly. Railroads consider the information to be proprietary, and believe making it public could raise security issues. Though local government officials may request a list of the hazardous materials transported by rail through their communities, the information is shared on a need-to-know basis according to Department of Homeland Security guidance.

The confidentiality of materials transported by rail was called into question after the accident in East Palestine.

"The railroad was not required to notify anyone here in Ohio about what was in the rail cars coming through our state," said Ohio Governor Mark DeWine at a press conference. "Congress needs to take a look at how these things are handled."

Barrie Hardymon edited this story, Monika Evstatieva produced it. Barbara Van Woerkom contributed research. Photo editing by Emily Bogle.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chiara Eisner
Chiara Eisner is a reporter for NPR's investigations team. Eisner came to NPR from The State in South Carolina, where her investigative reporting on the experiences of former execution workers received McClatchy's President's Award and her coverage of the biomedical horseshoe crab industry led to significant restrictions of the harvest.
Nick McMillan
Nick McMillan is an associate producer who specializes in data with NPR's Investigations unit. He utilizes data-driven techniques, video and motion graphics to tell stories. Previously, McMillan worked at Newsy on investigative documentaries, where he contributed to stories uncovering white supremacists in the U.S. military and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rican school children. McMillan has a bachelor's in statistics from Rice University and a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland.