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Widespread impacts to precipitation of the East Palestine, Ohio, train disaster

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Researchers have found that chemicals released during the 2023 East Palestine, Ohio, train disaster were carried across an area at least as vast as 16 U.S. states. Analyzing federal precipitation and pollution data routinely collected by the National Atmospheric Deposition Program, they found a large area of impact from the Midwest through the Northeast and likely to Canada, and potentially as far south as North Carolina. This is larger in scale and scope than initial predictions, and experts believe is due to pollutants rising into the atmosphere when the chemical spill was burned. Data showed high vinyl chloride concentrations with high (basic) pH levels in precipitation collected across the affected regions.

Abstract: On 3 February 2023, a Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred in East Palestine, Ohio. The accident and subsequent fire resulted in the emissions of large amounts of hazardous compounds to the ambient atmosphere over many days. We used precipitation chemistry measurements routinely collected by the National Atmospheric Deposition Program (NADP) to estimate the spatial extent and chemical compounds deposited as a result of the accident. Our measurements revealed a large areal impact from the Midwest through the Northeast and likely Canada, and perhaps as far south as North Carolina (portions of 16 states, 1.4 million km2). Observations showed the expected high chloride concentrations, but also unexpectedly high pH (basic) and exceptionally elevated levels of base cations exceeding 99th percentiles versus the historic record. These results were consistent with the meteorological conditions and atmospheric trajectories, and were not due to highly-concentrated low volume precipitation samples or wildfires. The robust measurements of the NADP network clearly show that the impacts of the fire were larger in scale and scope than the initial predictions, and likely due to the uplift from the fire itself entraining pollutants into the atmosphere. A more detailed evaluation of the accident and resulting fire could further refine the full impact of the atmospheric concentrations, dry and wet deposition, and the more specific extent of the spatial impact.

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