By GEOFF MULVIHILL
A freight train derailed Friday on a railroad bridge that has had problems before, toppling tanker cars partially into a creek and causing a leak of hazardous gas that was blamed for sickening dozens of people, authorities said.
Members of the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in New Jersey on Friday afternoon to investigate. They will try to determine whether the derailment was caused by a problem with the bridge or if the derailment was to blame for the bridge’s partial collapse.
A delicate operation lies ahead, as a huge crane was being brought from New York Harbor to pick up the dangling tanker cars. The accident happened just after 7 a.m. when a train with two locomotives, 83 freight cars and a caboose made its way from Camden to the industrial town of Paulsboro, just across the river from Philadelphia International Airport.
Cars from a train operated by CSX went off the rails on a swing-style bridge, owned by Conrail, over Mantua Creek. 3Seven cars derailed, including two box cars on stable ground and five on the bridge. NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said four tankers were partially in the creek.
One tanker containing 25,000 gallons of vinyl chloride was sliced open in the accident and some of the gas spewed into the air, while the rest turned into a solid and settled into the bottom of the tanker.
People who live nearby said the air was smoky in the morning. Doug Ricotta was working in his bakery when he heard a loud sound. “Next came a smell, kind of sweet – not a healthy smell,” he said. He stayed in his business and kept baking, though one catering order had to be canceled because roads into and out of town were closed for a few hours.
Breathing vinyl chloride, which is used to make the common plastic PVC, can make people dizzy or sleepy. Breathing very high levels can cause someone to pass out, and breathing extremely high levels can cause death. Most of the vinyl chloride is gone from the body one day after being breathed in.
More than 70 people were treated at Underwood-Memorial Hospital, most complaining of breathing problems, burning eyes or scratchy throats (what about long term affects?), said spokeswoman Karen Urbaniak. She said 11 arrived by ambulance, and the rest walked in. More than 60 were discharged by late afternoon, and the handful that remained were in stable condition.
Residents of Paulsboro, West Deptford and East Greenwich Township were told to remain indoors early Friday before an all-clear was given. One resident walked through town Friday morning wearing a gas mask. By late morning, state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna said that sensors were not detecting the chemical at the site.
Health effects of Vinyl Chloride
The hepatotoxicity of VCM has long been established since the 1930s when the PVC industry was just in its infant stages. In the very first study about the dangers of Vinyl Chloride (VC), published by Patty in 1930, it was disclosed that exposure of test animals to just a single short-term high dose of VC caused liver damage. In 1949, a Russian publication by Tribukh discussed the finding that VC caused liver injury among workers. In 1954, Rex Wilson, Medical Director, and William McCormick, Industrial Hygienist and Toxicologist, both of B.F. Goodrich Chemical, published an article that stated that it was known VC caused liver injury for short-term exposures; but almost nothing was known about its long-term effects. They also stated that long-term animal toxicology studies should be performed to fill this void of information. The study noted that if a chemical did not justify the cost of testing, and its ill-effects on workers and the public were known, the chemical should not be made. Thereafter, in 1963, Lester and Greenberg published an article reporting their findings from research paid for in part by Allied Chemical. They too found liver damage in test animals from exposures below 500 parts per million (ppm). Then, in 1963, a Romanian researcher, Suciu, published his findings of liver disease in VC workers. In 1968, Mutchler and Kramer, two Dow researchers, reported their finding that exposures as low as 300 ppm caused liver damage in VC workers thus confirming earlier animal data in humans. In a 1969 presentation given in Japan, P. L. Viola, a European researcher working for the European VC industry, indicated, “every monomer used in V.C. manufacture is hazardous….various changes were found in bone and liver. Particularly, much more attention should be drawn to liver changes. The findings in rats at the concentration of 4 to 10 ppm are shown in pictures.” In light of the finding of liver damage in rats from just 4-10 ppm of VC exposure, Viola added that he “should like some precautions to be taken in the manufacturing plants polymerizing vinyl chloride, such as a reduction of the threshold limit value of monomer …” In 1970, Viola, reported that test animals exposed to 30,000 ppm of VC developed cancerous tumors. Viola began his research looking for the cause of liver and bone injuries found in VC workers. Viola’s findings in 1970 were a “red flag” to B.F. Goodrich and the industry. In 1972, Maltoni, another Italian researcher for the European VC industry, found liver tumors (including angiosarcoma) from VC exposures as low as 250 ppm for four hours a day.
In the late 1960s, the cancers that all of these studies warned of finally manifested themselves in workers. John Creech from B.F. Goodrich discovered angiosarcoma (a very rare cancer) in the liver of a worker at the B.F. Goodrich plant in Louisville, Kentucky. Then, finally, on January 23, 1974, B.F. Goodrich informed the government and issued a press release stating that it was “investigating whether the cancer deaths of three employees in the polyvinyl chloride operations at its Louisville, Ky. plant were related to occupational causes.” By then there really was no doubt that vinyl chloride caused angiosarcoma of the liver; it had been shown in both animal studies and worker experience.
A 1997 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report concluded that the development and acceptance by the PVC industry of a closed loop polymerization process in the late 1970s “almost completely eliminated worker exposures” and that “new cases of hepatic angiosarcoma in vinyl chloride polymerization workers have been virtually eliminated.”
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “vinyl chloride emissions from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), ethylene dichloride (EDC), and vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) plants cause or contribute to air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to result in an increase in mortality or an increase in serious irreversible, or incapacitating reversible illness. Vinyl chloride is a known human carcinogen that causes a rare cancer of the liver.” EPA’s 2001 updated Toxicological Profile and Summary Health Assessment for VCM in its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) database lowers EPA’s previous risk factor estimate by a factor of 20 and concludes that “because of the consistent evidence for liver cancer in all the studies…and the weaker association for other sites, it is concluded that the liver is the most sensitive site, and protection against liver cancer will protect against possible cancer induction in other tissues.”
A 1998 front-page series in the Houston Chronicle claimed the vinyl industry has manipulated vinyl chloride studies to avoid liability for worker exposure and to hide extensive and severe chemical spills into local communities. Retesting of community residents in 2001 by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found dioxin levels similar to those in a comparison community in Louisiana and to the U.S. population. Cancer rates in the community were similar to Louisiana and US averages.