Small town firefighters are unprepared for chemical spills in train derailments Firefighters are often "woefully under-equipped" to handle train accidents that emit hazardous materials. Most of those serious enough to cause evacuations happened near small towns.

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

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We've been covering the chemical spill that happened a little over a month ago in East Palestine, Ohio, where a train carrying hazardous materials derailed and caught fire. Chiara Eisner of NPR's investigations team has been reporting on these kinds of accidents and how they affect small towns like East Palestine, especially the firefighters called to respond to the scene. She's here in the studio now. Hi, Chiara.


SHAPIRO: So this spill happened in a town where fewer than 5,000 people live. How common are these kinds of disasters?

EISNER: So these kinds of train accidents, when they do happen, are pretty rare, but our reporting shows that they tend to follow a pattern. They affect towns with fewer people and fewer resources. So in East Palestine, it was a massive burn, where 1.1 million pounds of a chemical known to cause cancer, vinyl chloride, were probably emitted, and hundreds of people had to be evacuated from that town. It took more than six hours for a firefighting team that was specially trained in responding to this hazardous chemical situation to get to the scene. The East Palestine Fire Department just has one full-time employee, and that is similar to what's been happening in other places. Over the past decade, there have been 18 major train accidents where hazardous chemicals leaked and 200 or more people had to be evacuated. Most of those communities were also made up of towns with fewer than 5,000 people. And like in East Palestine, the closest fire departments there were mostly volunteer fire departments.

SHAPIRO: And do the firefighters in these communities generally know if their departments are along train routes that carry these hazardous chemicals?

EISNER: Railroad companies do have to disclose those routes to the Federal Railroad Administration, but that agency does not share that information publicly. And I've been speaking to some firefighters who tell me that, generally, they have no idea what's rushing down the tracks next to them.

SHAPIRO: So when these accidents like the one in East Palestine happen, how prepared are fire departments to handle them?

EISNER: I've been speaking with experts who tell me that they think, nationwide, fire departments are nowhere near as trained as they should be for this kind of situation. Here's Jamie Burgess, who helps lead the hazardous instruction department of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

JAMIE BURGESS: I think the big takeaway here is not every fire department is equipped to fully manage a hazardous materials scene. The fire service as a whole in the United States is woefully undertrained and woefully underequipped to respond to a large-scale hazmat incident like this.

EISNER: I should say, too, it's not just training that's a problem. Equipment for responding to this is extremely expensive. So Norfolk Southern, the train company involved in the East Palestine accident, they ended up reimbursing the fire department in East Palestine for more than $800,000 in equipment, which we found was more than double what that fire department got from the city from local taxes to pay for its entire year's worth of activities. The company did announce earlier this week that it's opening a center in Ohio to train firefighters for free, but there are some things that can't be easily reimbursed or reversed, like the health of those firefighters.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Tell us more about what those health risks could be.

EISNER: So vinyl chloride - that really carcinogenic chemical that was released in such large amounts - it's been linked to liver cancer, blood cancer, brain cancer. And I spoke with a researcher called Dr. Tony Musu about it. He's at the European Trade Union Institute and studies chemical risks to workers.

TONY MUSU: There is no exposure concentration below which you don't have any risk of cancer. Those workers that were intervening in that accident are certainly at risk of having cancers in a few decades.

EISNER: There are some tests that can evaluate how much of this chemical is in the human body. Those tests have to be done right after exposure; otherwise, they're not valid. They don't tell you much useful information. Unfortunately, none of the firefighters I spoke with even had heard of this kind of test. I talked to the fire chief of East Liverpool, which was one of the teams that responded afterwards that had that specialized hazmat training. And he said that, when I mentioned it to him, that was the first time he had ever heard of it from anyone.


EISNER: Generally, he feels like health screening of firefighters is not on anyone's top priority list.

SHAPIRO: OK. NPR's Chiara Eisner of the investigations team, thank you so much.

EISNER: Thank you, Ari.

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