Concerns over an ominous cloud made up of burned off toxic chemicals continues to grow in East Palestine, Ohio after a recent train derailment. For the community, there are growing concerns that the seeming secrecy surrounding the accident may mean there’s a public health issues, including risks to human life, the environment, livestock and animals.

Is North Carolina at risk for a similar accident?

When a train derailed near the small working-class community of East Palestine on Feb. 3, there was an immediate cause for concern. While train accidents happened, it was the site of a dark and seemingly angry cloud that alarmed residents as a fire engulfed the cars. It quickly became apparent that the train was carrying some highly toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride, phosgene, hydrogen chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethyhexyl acrylate and isobutylene.

There were even concerns, at one point, that one of the cars carrying vinyl chloride – a flammable gas – would explode and potentially send debris flying for up to a mile. Authorities were able to release the tension without causing a massive explosion through a controlled chemical burn. 

Though there was a temporary evacuation order, most have returned home. However, despite Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to assure the community it’s safe, there are still lingering doubts that all is well.

Resident Melissa Henry shared with PBS that the family had to flee after her son began having a bad reaction. “It smelled like really, really strong paint thinner. And then his eyes turned like bloodshot, and he started coughing. And I was like, yes, we are leaving,” she said.

When it comes to water quality, that perhaps is one of the areas of greatest concern.

“Don’t tell me it’s safe. Something is going on if the fish are floating in the creek,” said Cathey Reese, who lives downstream from the accident and has seen dead fish floating through her backyard stream. 

Linda Murphy, an East Palestine resident, said, “There were several fish floating at multiple locations. That is what we bathe in. That’s what we drink. That’s what we cook with. And they could not reassure me that the water was safe to drink.”

The health of livestock and fresh food is also an issue, as Ohio has 75,000 farms and agriculture is the leading industry in the state. The state is also one of the nation’s largest food processors and makes products like cottage cheese, sherbet, ice cream, cheese, apples, corn and soybeans. It’s too early to tell, but it’s unclear if these agencies will emerge unscathed.

There are some reports that cows and other animals have died as a result of the controlled chemical burns. This could also mean that animals in the region are removed from the food supply over concerns about potential health impacts, in addition to produce. This could have a negative impact on future trips to the grocery store as well, where families are already dealing with staggeringly high prices. 

What does this mean for North Carolina?

Probably not much initially, but the Norfolk Southern train line does run through North Carolina, specifically Greensboro and Charlotte. It’s entirely possible that trains are running through the state with toxic chemicals that could be at risk to Tar Heel communities. Does the North Carolina Environmental Quality agency have a plan to deal with the potentially devastating fallout of a similar disaster? 

Accidents happen, but it’s how they’re managed that can make all the difference, especially if the government is transparent. So far, wild theories are running rampant and communities remain in fear.