Here are the chemicals spilled near Philly as U.S. drinking-water safety is top of mind
By Rachel Koning Beals
The Bucks County, Pa., spill comes on the heels of the toxic Ohio train derailment and the EPA's work to ban 'forever chemicals' in drinking water
Philadelphia residents are being told they may want to stick to bottled water following a weekend chemical spill into the Delaware River in neighboring Bucks County.
And while Pennsylvania health officials are telling residents that this particular chemical is non-toxic to humans, their work is made more difficult because of the highly charged toxic railroad spill in Ohio just a few weeks earlier.
Plus, drinking-water safety is top of mind after the Environmental Protection Agency has only recently moved to eliminate by regulation cancer-linked "forever chemicals" from U.S. drinking water for the first time ever.
What are the chemicals that found their way into the Delaware River?
Bucks County, Pa., health officials said Sunday that a leak late Friday evening at the Trinseo Altuglas chemical facility in Bristol Township spilled between 8,100 and 12,000 gallons of a water-based latex finishing solution into the Delaware River, the Associated Press reported. Officials said it is non-toxic to humans and no known adverse health effects have been reported in the county.
Mike Carroll, deputy managing director for Philadelphia's Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability, said there had been no sign of contaminants in city water, which also draws from the Delaware, but officials "cannot be 100% certain" traces won't show up.
He issued an advisory to avoid drinking or cooking with tap water for now as a precautionary step.
Read: Philadelphia tap water safe to drink -- for now -- after Delaware River chemical spill, officials say
How do these chemicals differ from those spilled in the Ohio derailment?
When a Norfolk Southern Corp. (NSC) freight train derailed near East Palestine, Ohio, along the Pennsylvania border, on Feb. 3, about 20 of the train's 150 cars were carrying potentially hazardous cargo. Eleven of those 20 came off the tracks, according to a manifest of the derailed cars provided to the EPA.
Related: 'Trust the government,' EPA head Regan says as he examines Ohio train spill site
Firefighters and other officials worked for several days to mitigate the effects of the derailment. But authorities grew concerned about rising temperatures inside a single railcar, which they worried could cause a catastrophic explosion that could send shrapnel flying up to a mile away.
Officials opted for a "controlled release," and burning the volatile vinyl chloride in the car, which created a billowing black cloud. Because burning vinyl chloride can emit other toxic chemicals, including hydrogen chloride and phosgene, officials ordered the evacuation of a one-by-two-mile area around East Palestine, on both sides of the Ohio-Pennsylvania line.
Read: Ohio train derailment: Here are answers to your questions about chemical contamination
In the weeks since the derailment, and as the investigation continues, residents worried about human and animal health have sparred at times with railroad and local government officials and the EPA, trying to understand further potential long-term risks from contaminated soil, groundwater, well water and rivers and creeks. Social media has allowed their voices to be heard and has amplified some erroneous theories about chemical contamination, say environmental officials.
Five of the derailed cars were carrying vinyl chloride, according to EPA reporting. This is a manmade substance that is a key component of PVC, the hard plastic resin widely used for plumbing pipes and HVAC ventilation in homes. It has uses in healthcare as well. Vinyl chloride, a sweet-smelling gas, is colorless. It is typically transported in the form of a compressed liquid.
In the short term, inhalation of vinyl chloride can cause respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath, headaches and dizziness. But chronic exposure to high levels of vinyl chloride has been associated with liver damage and cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other hazardous chemicals on the train included ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethyl hexyl acrylate and isobutylene, according to a partial Norfolk Southern manifest released by the EPA. All of those chemicals can cause irritation or neurological symptoms like dizziness and headaches, particularly with longer exposure.
One tank car lost its entire load of butyl acrylate, a clear liquid used to make paint, adhesives and caulk. The New Jersey Department of Health has warned that exposure to butyl acrylate can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and irritation to the nose, throat and lungs.
Just last week, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said he could back some parts of a bipartisan Senate bill to put tougher safety regulations on railroads.
EPA has moved to ban 'forever chemicals'
Both the Bucks County and East Palestine incidents are making national headlines at roughly the same time that the federal government for the first time is moving to ban cancer-linked perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS or "forever chemicals," from drinking water.
Some PFAS were first created as part of World War II-era atomic-bomb campaigns and later pushed into wider use.
In fact, "forever chemicals" are ubiquitous in modern lifestyles. They're part of the manufacturing of everything from stain-resistant and waterproof clothing to cookware, dental floss and toilet paper. Even newborn babies have been found to carry these chemicals in their bloodstream, according to at least one study.
Specifically, the EPA will require near-zero levels of PFAS, a much higher bar than previous regulation. Exposure to some of the chemicals has been linked to cancer, liver damage, fertility and thyroid problems, asthma and other health effects, according to some studies.
Here's a list of PFAS.
The regulatory push has also called for manufacturers and retailers to take a stand against using PFAS, which some trade groups and chemical manufacturers have already done.
And while the EPA action would target chemical measurement at drinking-water facilities, the United Nations and the globe at large has grown concerned about the chemicals finding their way into groundwater and into the wells that some homeowners rely on for water.
Read: World Water Day raises alarm for groundwater and 'forever chemicals' -- how to invest
By definition, groundwater is the water beneath Earth's surface in rock and soil pore spaces and in the fractures of rock formations. About 30% of all readily available freshwater in the world is groundwater, supporting drinking supplies, sanitation systems, farming, industry and natural ecosystems.
Read:How to determine if your drinking water is safe as EPA moves to restrict 'forever chemicals'
And:An issue with your tissue? 'Forever chemicals' are in toilet paper, too
It's about infrastructure, too
The spills and the action by the federal government on drinking-water chemicals, and a record-setting drought in the U.S. West, also shine light on how widespread water concerns can spread. That includes scrutiny of which U.S. communities might get the most attention when it comes to the safety of water for drinking, cooking and washing. Leaks and overall water efficiency can't be ignored either.
In late-2022, Jackson, Miss., for the second time in a year, suffered as a weather-related disaster overwhelmed the city's water system shut off the taps for much of its population of 150,000. The crisis harkened back in part to the Flint, Mich., water emergency from 2014, a public-health crisis linked to drinking water contaminated with lead and possibly Legionella bacteria after policy decisions on water sourcing.
Yet, Jackson, the predominately Black state capital, is emblematic of a swelling water infrastructure crisis that many U.S. cities, suburbs and rural areas must prepare for.
Much of the nation's water infrastructure was built decades ago and some pipes are more than a century old. Leaking water has become an issue, with some water systems reporting loss rates exceeding 60%, a McKinsey & Co. report on the sector says.
The infrastructure act passed in 2021 provides funding to replace lead pipes throughout the country, address emerging contaminants, especially in small and disadvantaged communities, and the spending will support rural water projects. Water received the second most money in that bipartisan bill, behind transportation spending.
Related: Yes, it could happen to you. Like the water crisis in Jackson, Miss., other U.S. cities are vulnerable to climate-change disaster
-Rachel Koning Beals
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March 27, 2023 14:32 ET (18:32 GMT)
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