State issues report on health impact of Paulsboro toxic leak

The derailment in Paulsboro in November 2012 caused a chemical spill that continues to generate health complaints.
The derailment in Paulsboro in November 2012 caused a chemical spill that continues to generate health complaints. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 03, 2014

A state study conducted in the aftermath of the 2012 train derailment in Paulsboro found that more than half of those interviewed reported new or intensified health issues in the days after the accident.

Most commonly, residents noted experiencing headaches, respiratory symptoms, and coughing in the week after the Nov. 30 accident, according to the Department of Health report, based on two surveys.

In its findings, 58 percent of those interviewed in person and 66 percent of those responding to a mail-in survey said they experienced "new or worsening symptoms" in the week after the derailment, which leaked about 20,000 gallons of toxic vinyl chloride into the atmosphere.

Information was collected from nearly one-third of Paulsboro's more than 6,100 residents, the report states, and "symptoms were more frequently reported by those with preexisting respiratory health problems . . . and among those who were current smokers."

The report also notes that "symptom frequencies are consistently higher in homes closer than 3,500 feet from" the accident site than those outside of that threshold.

The report was posted recently to the website for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident.

NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said Friday the board requested the Health Department's survey findings during hearings last summer, but the department needed more time to complete its report.

The derailment occurred over the Mantua Creek as a freight train crossed a swing bridge. Despite a warning light, a conductor had determined the train was able to proceed. Four tank cars fell into the river, one of which ruptured and released the vinyl chloride.

The incident forced the evacuation of hundreds, and a number of lawsuits have been filed against Conrail, which owns and operates the bridge.

Michael Hotra, a Conrail spokesman, said the company would not have a comment on the report's findings but said it was cooperating with the investigation.

Mark Cuker, a Philadelphia attorney representing more than 1,000 residents in suits related to the accident, said the report validated his clients' reported health concerns.

"It caused a lot of health problems," Cuker said.

The NTSB plans to have another hearing and issue its probable-cause report in the "near future," Williams said.

The safety board has estimated that 25,000 to 30,000 railcars containing hazardous materials pass through the borough each year.



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