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To the Point: What Are the Dangers and Responsibilities Involved in Transporting Hazardous Chemicals across the Nation by Train?

Professor and chemist Matthew Hartings answers our question of the week

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To the Point: TrainsTo the Point provides insights from AU faculty experts on timely questions covering current events, politics, business, culture, science, health, sports, and more. Each week we ask one professor just one critical question about what’s on our minds.

On February 3, a 150-car freight liner carrying toxic chemicals crashed off the tracks in the town of East Palestine, Ohio. Nearby residents may have been exposed to serious health risks from toxic materials carried on the train and from the controlled burn afterwards.

This is just one of more than a dozen rail accidents reported to have already taken place in the United States since the beginning of the year. In fact, since the East Palestine crash, there has been another train derailment in Ohio involving the same company, Norfolk Southern.

It seems that there is another train derailment every time we look at the news. We turned to AU professor and chemist Matthew Hartings to ask:

What are the dangers and responsibilities involved in transporting hazardous chemicals across the nation by train?  

The train derailment and subsequent chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio is a crisis of our own making. Our constant need for more stuff means that we need to keep producing the materials that make that stuff both possible and affordable.  

These are the demands that drive much of the chemical industry. And chemistry walks a very fine line here. It turns out that reactive chemicals (read: hazardous) also tend to be the best (read: cheapest, most efficient, least energy intensive) for making the materials that we use. Chemical expediency must constantly be balanced with safe storage, shipment, and handling.

This balancing act is absolutely required for vinyl chloride (VC), one of the industrial chemicals involved in the spill in East Palestine. Vinyl chloride is the building block for the PVC plastic that is ubiquitous in society. Chemists know how to best store and handle VC, and they recognize that transporting VC has risks. Because of this risk, the vast majority of VC gets used near to where it is produced. For the rest of the VC, extra precautions must be in place.

Smoke seen behind a neighborhood

Those precautions were not met. Vinyl chloride and a number of other industrial chemicals were released into the environment along with the chemicals produced during the controlled burn. It will likely take years until we know the extent of the ecological damage caused by this accident. In the meantime, the people of East Palestine deserve to be able to confidently go about their lives.

It is our responsibility, as citizens and participants in driving demand for PVC and other materials, to make sure that the people of East Palestine are made whole again. It is also our responsibility to make sure that the probability of another accident like this is vanishingly small.

About the Author

Matthew Hartings is a materials chemist and food scientist. His research aims to develop new materials (for 3D printing and environmental monitoring) and explore how materials are made by biology (biomineralization). Dr. Hartings is also an expert on food and cooking chemistry. His book, Chemistry in Your Kitchen, details all the wonderful chemistry we do when we step into a kitchen.