Chemicals released in East Palestine: Including WWI choking agent

The chemicals released in East Palestine revealed: From a WWI choking agent to known carcinogens, looks at the substances and their known health risks after toxic train crash

  • Cancer-causing vinyl chloride was one of the six chemicals on board the trains which derailed on February 3
  • It was burned during Norfolk Southern’s controlled release of the substances days later to avoid an explosion
  • This in turn released hydrogen chloride and WWI chemical weapon phosgene used to choke people
  • READ MORE: Air in East Palestine IS toxic, scientists find in shock report

Fears about the toxic train explosion in Ohio were amplified this week when independent researchers determined the air in East Palestine has ‘unusually high’ levels of toxic chemicals.

That assessment contradicted an early conclusion made by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that said it was safe — despite dozens of substances being released into the area, either by the derailment itself or a by-product of the combustion of the chemicals.

Many commentators have described the toxic train incident as ‘Ohio’s Chernobyl’ and there are growing fears of health problems down the line. has investigated the chemicals found in the air of East Palestine and documented their health risks:

Independent testing done by Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon University published last week found that the air in East Palestine contains ‘higher than normal’ concentrations of nine potentially harmful chemicals. 

These were: acrolein, benzene, vinyl chloride, butadiene, naphthalene, o-Xylene, trichloroethylene, trichloroethane and p-Xylene.

Acrolein — a gas that can cause excess fluid in the lungs

Acrolein was calculated to be the biggest concern for residents, the Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon University researchers said. This was because they found it to have the highest level above safe limits.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), acrolein is either a clear, colorless gas or a pale yellow, strong-smelling liquid.

It evaporates easily at normal temperatures, producing toxic concentrations, and is poisonous when consumed, no matter whether the exposure route is inhaled or through skin contact. 

It causes inflammation and irritation of the skin, respiratory tract and mucus membranes. After it is inhaled, it can cause delayed pulmonary edema — excess fluid in the lungs.

This can lead to coughs, chest pain and fatigue. It is formed when fossil fuels are burnt and is also a by-product of fires.

Local resident and mother-of-two Ayla Antoniazzi told CNN: ‘I did allow my four-year-old to return to preschool, which is in the East Palestine Elementary School. She went back for two days and developed another rash her hands and started complaining of itching, so I pulled her back out.’

A giant plume of smoke from the aftermath of the incident could be seen from miles away

Ayla Antoniazz’s four-year-old daughter’s hands

Benzene — a deadly industrial chemical

Benzene is a colorless or pale yellow liquid with a sweet scent which burns easily and evaporates into the air rapidly. Remnants of the liquid was also on board two of the fifty derailed cars.

The substance is formed naturally from volcanoes and forest fires and is a natural part of crude oil, gasoline and cigarette smoke.

It is also used to make plastics, nylon and some types of lubricants, drugs and pesticides. 

Minutes to hours after breathing benzene in, it can bring on symptoms including drowsiness, dizziness, increased or irregular heartbeat, headaches, confusion, unconsciousness and even death at very high levels.

According to the CDC, eating food or drinking water that is contaminated with benzene can lead to sleepiness, vomiting and convulsions within minutes to several hours. It can also cause death at very high levels.

It is a known carcinogen strongly linked to leukemia and other blood disorders. 

The EPA reported a median of 0.00084 (mg/m3) in East Palestine, but the Texas A&M researchers found 0.03.

Tens of thousands of Ohio and Pennsylvania residents affected by toxic train derailment offered FREE health checks


Tens of thousands of residents affected by the toxic train derailment in East Palestine will be offered free health checks amid fears of a looming public health crisis. 

Butadiene — a gas that can lead to vertigo

Butadiene is a clear gas with a gasoline-like odor. It is formed during the processing of the fossil fuel crude oil and is used in the production of synthetic rubber, but is also found in plastics.

Short-term low exposure can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat.

Exposure to higher concentrations can damage the central nervous system and lead to blurred vision, vertigo, tiredness, decreased blood pressure, headache, nausea, decreased pulse rate, and fainting.

The long-term health effects of butadiene exposure are unclear and disputed.

Multiple disease studies in humans have demonstrated an increase in cardiovascular disease and cancer, but due to other factors such as smoking and simultaneous exposure to benzene, scientists cannot be sure of a true causal relationship.

The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) has designated butadiene as a suspected human carcinogen.

Naphthalene — a gas that can cause organ damage

Naphthalene, a type of hydrocarbon, is found in fossil fuels, but is also formed as a by-product when fossil fuels are burned.

It usually occurs as a white solid substance, but it can also be released as a gas into the air when gases or vapors are released from a pressurized container. Outdoor sources can also contribute to low indoor levels, as naphthalene can be a gas at room temperature. 

The main way people are exposed is through breathing in air in homes and other buildings.

According to the EPA, short-term exposure to naphthalene via inhalation, ingestion or skin contact is linked to brain and liver damage.

It is also associated with hemolytic anemia, a disorder where red blood cells are destroyed or altered so they cannot carry oxygen, which can lead to organ damage.

Long-term exposure has been reported to cause cataracts and damage to retinas in the eyes.

There is insufficient data to determine a causal relationship between exposure to naphthalene and cancer in humans, but the EPA has classified it as a possible human carcinogen.

o-Xylene and p-Xylene — gases that can lead to dizziness

O-xylene and p-xylene are types of xylene, an sweet-smelling, transparent liquid or gas naturally found in crude oil and coal. It is involved in making rubber, paint and leather.

People can be exposed to xylene by breathing it in the air, and there is a low potential for accumulation in the body.

Short-term health effects can be caused in less than 14 days and long-term ones after a year’s exposure. 

The major effects of inhaling the vapor are headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting.

As exposure levels increase, symptoms can include irritability, slower reaction times, giddiness, confusion, slurred speech and ringing in the ears.

Information on the longer-term impacts of xylene exposure specifically is limited, but potential symptoms include depression, insomnia, tremors and impaired short-term memory functioning.

Trichloroethylene and trichloroethane — liquids that could cause cancer

Trichloroethylene is a clear liquid that smells like chloroform, mainly used as a solvent to clean grease from metal parts. It is also an ingredient in typewriter correction fluids, paint removers and glues.

It is found in the air, soil and water at places where it is made or used. While it will break down, it stays in the environment for a very long time, passes easily through soil and can build up in groundwater.

Trichloroethylene is a known carcinogen, as prolonged or repeated exposure causes kidney cancer. Some evidence also links it to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and possibly liver cancer.

Trichloroethane is a clear liquid used as a solvent in for rubbers, fats, oils, waxes and resins. It dissolves in water and evaporates easily.

The vapor breaks down gradually in the air and can travel for long distances.

Like trichloroethylene, it does not stick to soil. This means it can filter down into groundwater. However, only infrequently has it been found to get into water and homes from a contaminated site.

According to the New Jersey Department of Health, it is a possible carcinogen. Inhaling the substance can irritate the nose and throat, causing headaches and dizzines. In some cases, someone exposed will pass out.

Damage can also occur to the liver and kidneys. The majority of the information surrounding the health impacts comes from animal studies. 

Animals that inhaled high levels suffered effects on the nervous system, where they became drowsy and moved around more slowly. They also had damage to their lungs and the cells in their nose. 

Vinyl chloride — a carcinogen that can shut down the central nervous system

Vinyl chloride was also on board the trains that derailed. It is a colorless manmade gas which burns easily.

It is mainly used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a hard plastic resin used to make plastic products including PVC pipe, wire coating, upholstery, plastic cooking utensils.

The substance is not known or suspected to cause cancer, but vinyl chloride is associated with a higher risk of a rare form of liver cancer (hepatic angiosarcoma), as well as primary liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma), brain and lung cancers, lymphoma and leukemia.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists vinyl chloride as carcinogenic to humans, which means it has sufficient scientific proof that it causes cancer in people.

People exposed to vinyl chloride over many years are likely to get liver damage and cancer. It will most likely enter someone’s body by breathing it in, but it can also be ingested via contaminated drinking water.

The chemical travels through the body in the blood and the liver will break it down into other chemicals, some of which can cause more damage than the vinyl chloride itself.

The gas has a faint sweet odor, but the threshold at which it will smell is ‘too high to provide an adequate warning of hazardous concentrations’, according to the CDC.

This means people can be overexposed to it without being aware it is even in the air. A five-minute exposure to over twice the level it can be smelt at can cause dizziness.

At levels five times that high, exposure can cause drowsiness, a loss of coordination, issues with sight and hearing, disorientation, nausea, headache, and burning or tingling in the arms and legs. Sustained exposure can lead to death due to the central nervous system shutting down.

The gas is also found in tobacco smoke. When burned, as it was during the Norfolk Southern’s controlled release of the train chemicals in East Palestine, vinyl chloride produces hydrogen chloride and phosgene. 

Norfolk Southern claimed the release was necessary to prevent a larger explosion. When vinyl chloride was burned during the controlled exposure, phosgene and hydrogen chloride would have been released.

The plume of smoke is seen above East Palestine following the February 3 train crash

Phosgene — a WWI chemical weapon that can choke people

Phosgene is a colorless, non-flammable gas and poisonous gas with the odor of freshly cut hay. The odor may not be noticeable to everyone exposed to the gas. It would have been released when vinyl chloride was burnt at the site.

It is a man-made, major industrial chemical used to create pharmaceuticals, dyes and lots of other chemicals, including pesticides.

The gas weighs more than air, causing it to collect in low-lying areas. It was extensively used as a chemical weapon in World War I, estimated to cause as many as 85 percent of the 91,000 gas deaths.

It would kill enemy soldiers by forcing them to choke on it, and eventually suffocating them. 

If phosgene gas is let off into the air, people can be exposed to it through the skin or eyes or by breathing it in.

If it is released into water, people can become exposed if they touch or drink the water.

A cough, burning sensation in the throat and eyes, watery eyes and blurred vision can occur during or immediately following toxic concentrations of phosgene.

Other symptoms include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting.

If it comes into contact with the skin, lesions that look like frostbite or burns can develop.

After exposure to high concentrations of the gas, fluid in the lungs can develop, known as a pulmonary edema, between two to six hours later.

Death may occur within 36 hours after inhalation, caused by heart failure. 

The majority of people who recover from phosgene exposure have no long-term health benefits, but chronic bronchitis and emphysema have occurred in some cases.

East Palestine resident Melissa Henry told the Associated Press a week after the derailment occurred that her youngest son’s ‘eyes turned red as tomato and he was coughing a lot’ before the family moved to her parents’ house outside the evacuation zone.

Raven Ramsey, who lives in Niles, Ohio, roughly 27 miles from East Palestine, said on Facebook: ‘All three of my kids have had coughs, watery puffy eyes, nausea and headaches.’

And Melissa Ryan, a mum of two living six miles away from the derailment, said there was a ‘giant black cloud’ directly over her house.

She said: ‘We were away the weekend of the derailment but when I came back that Sunday my eyes started burning and have been doing so since. I have a cough, both my kids have a cough.’

Industry, Pennsylvania resident Nate Stewart, lives roughly 19 miles from the derailment site. Him and his wife have been suffering lesions popping up on different parts of their body.

He said: ‘Almost seems like a GIANT mosquito bite. It doesn’t pop, sometimes bleeds if itched enough… Starting to get concerned because they keep coming back in different places.’ 

He described the lesions as ‘extremely itchy, swells the skin until it’s stretched and painful, secretes clear liquid from the broken skin once they process. They are in different parts of the process from one location to the other’.

Mr Stewart added that him and his wife had also had: ‘Head cold symptoms, headaches, fatigue and consistent bloody noses to pair with these legions.’

Another member of the Facebook group, Lisa Ann Sims, replied to Mr Stewart’s post, saying: ‘I too have them on my hands, arms and legs. Then they dry up and leave scars.’

East Palestine Facebook group member Lisa Ann Sims said she had suffered lesions on her ‘hands, arms and legs’ (pictured left). Industry, Pennsylvania resident Nate Stewart lives roughly 19 miles from the derailment site. Pictured are the lesions on his toe (pictured right)

Hydrogen chloride — a gas that can cause the throat to spasm

Hydrogen chloride is a colorless to slightly yellow corrosive gas with a pungent odor. It would have been released when vinyl chloride was burnt at the site.

When it is exposed to air, it makes white corrosive vapors.

It has a variety of uses, including cleaning, pickling and tanning leather, as well as refining mineral ore and oil drilling.

It is corrosive to the eyes, skin, throat and voice box. When it meets water, it forms hydrochloric acid, which is also corrosive.

Like phosgene, it weighs more than air, so will gravitate towards low-lying areas. Brief exposure to small amounts irritates the throat.

Exposure to higher concentrations can lead to quickened breathing, narrowing of airways in the lungs, people turning blue, fluid building up in the lungs or even death.

If people become exposed to even higher levels, the throat can swell and spasm, leading to suffocation.

Others may develop a type of asthma in response to the gas, known as reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS).

Hydrogen chloride can also result in severe eye and skin burns, dependent on exposure levels. If exposed over a longer period, there can also be respiratory problems and discoloration of the teeth.

Tests for the presence of hydrogen chloride in blood or urine are not generally useful, according to the CDC. If intense exposure has occurred, the tests can show if the lungs or the gastrointestinal tract is damaged. Some of the tests required can be done in a doctor’s office, but some may need hospital facilities.

Other chemicals on board the train were isobutylene, glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and butyl acrylate.

Wade Lovett, 40, claims he has developed a high-pitched, Michael-Jackson-like voice and trouble breathing since the chemical incident. He told the problem ‘just keeps getting worse and worse’. 

Mr Lovett, an auto detailer, lives with his fiancée about 15 minutes from where the trains derailed but he works close to the site, which is why he believes he had been so severely affected.

Barbara Levy, a marketing coordinator living in Youngstown in Ohio, a 30-minute drive from East Palestine, said she was suffering what felt and looked like sunburn on her face and was ‘really itchy’.

Wade Lovett, 40, has suffered breathing difficulties and his previously low voice now sounds high-pitched and squeaky. He has had to go off work sick as a result

Biden orders door-to-door health surveys in East Palestine 


Officials are carrying out door-to-door health surveys on residents in East Palestine amid fears of an emerging public health crisis.

Isobutylene — a sweet-smelling gas that can kill at high concentrations

Isobutylene is a transparent gas on board the train cars that derailed. It has a sweet, gasoline-like odor and is used to produce gasoline for planes and food packaging, chewing gum and tires.

When breathed in, isobutylene can irritate the eyes, nose and throat. It can also cause headaches, dizziness, lightheadedness and drowsiness.

At high levels, the substance can cause coma and death, according to the New Jersey Department of Health.

Chronic health effects of isobutylene can last for years but may not appear until some time after exposure.

A severe reaction to the gas initially does not guarantee long-term effects. At the same time, long-term impacts can come about from ongoing exposure to chemicals at levels that are not high enough to make someone instantly ill.

This means even residents around the derailment site who are not yet experiencing symptoms may still be at risk. 

The New Jersey health department said the gas had not been tested for its ability to cause cancer or affect reproduction.

It added that exposures in the community are much lower than those in environments where people are working with the chemical, except potentially in the cases of fires and spills.

People in the community might come into contact with isobutylene through contaminated water or continued air exposure and may cause more issues for those who are already ill.

There is no test for isobutylene, but medical attention is recommended if symptoms occur or overexposure is suspected.

Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether — a liquid used in paint stripper that can cause vomiting

Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, also known as 2-butoxyethanol, is a clear liquid used in paint strippers and thinners and household cleaning products. It has a mild, pleasant odor and was also on board the Ohio train cars.

The gas may be released into the air as paints and cleaners dry.

When the substance reaches 68 F, it can evaporate and contaminate the air.

The most common route of exposure is through breathing in the vapor or touching the liquid. If ingested, it can be toxic.

If the liquid touches the skin, it can cause it to dry out and crack.

The vapor can cause irritation to the nose and eyes, and may cause a runny nose, as well as headaches, a metallic taste and vomiting.

Landfills and hazardous waste sites can release the substance to water that is under the ground, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Exposure can also happen through the accidental ingestion of contaminated food or water.

Ethylhexyl acrylate — a substance in glue that causes drowsiness

Ethylhexyl acrylate, also on board the train, is a see through liquid, used by manufacturers to make paint, glue, leather finishes and coatings for paper.

If inhaled, over exposure to the chemical can lead to irritation and drowsiness, and throat and mouth irritation when swallowed, as per chemical distribution company ThermoFisher Scientific. The chemical should not be not released into the environment, it said.

In some news coverage of the derailment, the substance has been confused with ethyl acrylate, which is thought to cause cancer.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) said there is insufficient evidence in humans that ethylhexyl acrylate is a carcinogen, and only limited evidence in experimental animals.

In 2021, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) listed the chemical as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ based on ‘sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in animals’.

People overexposed to the chemical can suffer headaches, nausea and vomiting. If people have trouble breathing, rash, itching, swelling, tingling of the hands and feet, chest and muscle pain or flushed skin, it could be a sign of an allergic reaction.

East Palestine resident Candice DeSanzo evacuated the area along with her five sons after the derailment but returned when federal authorities lifted the evacuation order.

She told an Ideastream reporter at a community meeting: ‘We all have red rashes, loose stool, congestion, eyes burning. Everything smells. I’ve been having terrible headaches.’

Ya’oh-Khanah Ashath Shamashon, who lives in Campbell in Ohio, said herself and two of her daughters have been getting ‘hive-like rashes all over our bodies and headaches’ for ‘over a week’.

Butyl acrylate — a chemical that can cause skin to ooze

Butyl acrylate is another colorless liquid used to make paints, coatings, sealant and glues. Unlike vinyl chloride, it has a strong, fruity odor. It was on board the trains that derailed.

According to the CDC, severe exposure to its vapor can lead to irritation in the eyes, including redness and tearing up, a scratchy throat, issues with breathing and redness and cracking of the skin.

Continued exposure over months and years can cause the skin to itch and affected areas to ooze. Behavioral and nervous system effects are also possible.

Melissa Blake lives within a mile radius of the crash site in East Palestine. She told NBC News she began coughing up gray mucus and struggled to breathe two days after the train derailment on February 3.

She left her home and went straight to the emergency room, where doctors diagnosed her with ‘acute bronchitis due to chemical fumes’.

Ms Blake was given a breathing machine, oxygen, and three types of steroids. She was discharged from the hospital but is yet to return to her home. 

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