International treaties ban the use of chlorine gas as a weapon. Humanity appeared to learn its lesson from the horrors of gas attacks during World War I. While chlorine gas attacks by repressive regimes against their own citizens have been documented, the vast majority of governments have held to their commitment to forgo chemical weapons.
Chlorine gas, however, remains in common use. Many industrial processes rely on the substance. It also rises from chlorinated pool water, and hundreds of individuals learn each year that generating chlorine gas by mixing household cleaners is one of the simplest (and most regrettable) experiments one can conduct.
When companies need to transport chlorine gas, they do so by rail. This is very practical and generally safe. Unit it isn’t.
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In early January 2005, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in the community of Graniteville, South Carolina. Chlorine gas leaking form a punctured tank car killed nine people and sickened hundreds more. Thousands of residents were forced to evacuate their homes, and even fish in a nearby stream paid a fatal price following the train crash.
Chlorine gas kills by irreversibly damaging lung tissue. At a high enough concentration, the substance can cause a person to suffocate within minutes. The CDC lists the signs and symptoms of toxic chlorine gas exposure as including
- Blurred vision
- Burning pain, redness, and blisters on the skin
- Burning sensation in the nose, throat, and eyes
- Chest tightness
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema) that may be delayed for a few hours
- Nausea and vomiting
- Watery eyes
These symptoms can appear immediately or develop later, and they may persist for weeks. Some people who inhale chlorine gas without dying never recover full lung function.
It Helps to Treat Chemical Tank Cars as Potential Bombs
Several lessons emerged from the derailment and chlorine gas leak in Graniteville. The first was that emergency responders and medical personal must receive training in how to recognize and treat large-scale chemical exposures. During the hours immediately following the Norfolk Southern train derailment, several people were turned away from hospitals or initially diagnosed with conditions other than chlorine gas exposure.
Second, railroad corporations must step up to accept liability and fairly compensate victims of train crashes and other accidents. The company did settle many personal injury and wrongful death claims within a year, but other cases dragged on until 2015. Even then, serious questions about inequitable treatment of injured and deceased victims persisted.
Third, and most importantly, the mass casualty event in Graniteville highlighted the need to improve the design of chemical and liquid tank cars. This alert sadly went unheeded until the summer of 2013. That was when several cars carrying petroleum exploded in the center of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. The disaster claimed 47 lives and all but wiped the town near the U.S.-Canada border off the map. By 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued new rules regarding the design of tank cars, maintenance of older rolling stock and the replacement of damaged cars.
Railroad employees work with and around may types of toxic chemicals and explosive materials. Even when accidents do not happen, routine and chromic exposures raise rail workers’ risks for developing cancer and other debilitating or deadly diseases. Railroad corporations must do all they can to ensure safety on the job and along the tracks.