Maine will need weeks to determine impacts of Ohio train derailment on air quality


It could be March before environmental officials here know if any of the deadly chemicals from last week’s train derailment in Ohio reached Maine. But even if they did end up here, it is likely in amounts too small to present a health hazard.

The Feb. 3 accident  ignited a fire creating a plume of deadly smoke over the scene. In an attempt to prevent an explosion, authorities carried out a controlled release into the air of toxic fumes they said would neutralize burning toxins in the rail cars.

Given that Maine, and much of New England, is downwind from where the train derailed about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, there is a chance that one or more of the four toxins known to have been aboard drifted over the state within 24- to 48-hours after the accident.

That downwind location is why Maine is often referred to as “the tailpipe of the nation,” according to Jeff Crawford, director of the Maine Bureau of Air Quality.

“Maine, because of its geographic location, is at the downwind terminus of the northeast corridor,” Crawford said. “It is especially impacted by transported emissions from states and regions to our south.”

“If we monitored elevated levels of vinyl chloride last week, these levels would most certainly be detected by our analytical lab,” Crawford said. “With respect to specific health concerns or impacts from vinyl chloride, the [Maine Department of Environmental Protection] always defers to the Maine Center for Disease Control.”

Maine monitors its air for a number of hazardous air pollutants including the four identified from the Ohio derailment. Samples are collected in Presque Isle, Bangor, Lewiston, Rumford, Portland and South Portland.

The sites collect 24-hour samples every six days throughout the year, according to Crawford. The last testing date was on Feb. 11 and he said the bureau’s testing laboratory will not have results from those samples for a few weeks.

“Although we regularly monitor and analyze samples for 47 hazardous air pollutants, ambient concentrations are typically in the ‘non detect’ range, meaning they are less than 0.00002 parts per [million],” Crawford said. “Maine’s annual ambient air guideline for vinyl chloride is 0.000043 [ppm], or more than 20 times our analytical limits.”

Results from monitors in Pennsylvania have not shown any elevated levels of the toxins so far, Crawford said. He has not yet seen any data from any monitors in Ohio.

So far, federal officials have confirmed the rail cars were carrying vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene.

Exposure to vinyl chloride causes dizziness, nausea, headache, visual disturbances and respiratory problems, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

Ethylhexyl acrylate is a carcinogen and can cause burning and irritation of the skin and eyes, according to the CDC. Inhalation can irritate the nose and throat, causing shortness of breath and coughing.

Inhalation of isobutylene can cause dizziness and drowsiness as well, while exposure to ethylene glycol monobutyl ether can caused irritation in the eyes, skin, nose and throat, as well as hematuria, or blood in the urine, nervous system depression, headache and vomiting, according to the CDC

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