Fact Check By: Craig Jones, Newswise



“We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open,” said Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist.

Claim Publisher and Date: Sil Caggiano on 2023-02-12

Five days after a Norfolk Southern train carrying vinyl chloride derailed and exploded near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, crews ignited a controlled burn of toxic chemicals to prevent a much more dangerous explosion. Local residents of East Palestine, Ohio are wondering whether returning to the area is really safe. In a report from television station WXBN in Youngstown, Ohio, it was disclosed that additional toxic chemicals have been discovered in the area. A comment made by Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist, was included in the WXBN report. Caggiano said that “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open."  The quote has been shared by thousands on social media. Christopher M. Reddy, a Senior Scientist at the Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution cautions that this statement may be hyperbole.

"Do not let the 'doom and gloom' overwhelm you," says Reddy. In response to the Caggiano's "nuked a town" statement, Reddy says it is "totally irresponsible. A very different situation when perceived by the public."

Reddy's comment on the reporting of the incident:

I would caution that the outcomes and scenarios available on Wikipedia are often overgeneralized and lack nuance.  I don’t wish to downplay this accident at all. Very different situation. It is very hard to predict the short and long-term impacts of any chemical release with great certainty, but I don’t foresee with the knowledge in hand, significant long-term impacts. All of these chemicals are relatively short-lived and unlikely to persist for many months, and they have a low affinity to bioaccumulate in human and animal tissue."

Reddy recommends the following for local residents:

  1. Remain cautious
  2. Do not let the “doom and gloom” overwhelm you.
  3. Ask for the sampling plans. Have samples been collected? When? Where? What is the detection limit?
  4. Ask for laboratory results for the chemicals that were released and their breakdown products.  (Key point—the actual chemicals.) I cannot speak for the level of analyses being performed, but these are complex measurements. Certainly not the equivalent of pH paper.
  5. Seek information from reputable sources.

Mark Jones, a retired industrial chemist has this to say...

The chemicals, now four, are all dangerous in multiple ways. They can be acutely toxic, chronically toxic and they are all flammable. The controlled burn takes flammable materials to more benign materials. In the case of vinyl chloride, a product of combustion is hydrochloric acid, itself dangerous but not flammable.

The comment about a "more dangerous explosion" is a bit misleading. There is a risk to those attempting to clean up the site if there is a reservoir of flammable material. Reducing that risk is one of the reasons to do a controlled burn. There are many ways to do a controlled burn and I don't know exactly what was done here.

Two of the materials, vinyl chloride and isobutylene, are quite volatile. Isobutylene handles approximately like butane, the stuff in a lighter. It is a liquid under just a little bit of pressure. Release the pressure and it becomes a gas. Vinyl chloride is similar. When released, both become a gas. They should not persist on the site. They should be swept away in the air.

The other two materials, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether and ethylhexyl acrylate, are higher boiling liquids. Both are flammable. The controlled burn of these materials should destroy them and make only carbon dioxide and water.


 Note to Journalists/Editors: The expert quotes are free to use in your relevant articles on this topic. Please attribute them to their proper sources.