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Derailed in D.C.: "Bomb Trains," Poison Tracks and My Chemical Exposure

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Reprinted from Campaign For America's Future

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A CSX freight train derailed in Washington, D.C. last week. The Washington Post reported that ethanol, which is colorless and highly flammable, was leaking out of one of the overturned cars in the accident's immediate aftermath.

The 14-car derailment also "spilled half the liquid contents of a 15,500-gallon tanker" filled with a sodium hydroxide onto the ground beside the Rhode Island Avenue Metro Station. That's nearly 8,000 gallons of something the Post describes as a "highly caustic chemical."

Sodium hydroxide is also known as "lye." If that name sounds more familiar, perhaps it's because killers often use it to dissolve their victims' bodies on TV crime shows. It has also been used by a host of real-life murderers, including Mexican drug cartel assassins and the 1897 killer known as the "Sausage King of Chicago." It's the corrosive of choice because it dissolves flesh and bone more effectively than acid when it's heated.

(It's also used in household cleaners.)

Somewhere between 40 and 50 tons of sodium hydroxide may have spilled onto the ground outside the Metro station. (Its weight per gallon depends on its density).


Local officials, including D.C. Assistant Fire Chief John Donnelly, insisted that the fumes posed no threat to public health. But I fell ill after spending a few minutes at the accident site a couple of days later. It's possible that I reacted to something else, like the airborne materials raised by the cleanup operation itself. But my symptoms matched those of sodium hydroxide exposure.

The Centers for Disease Control says that "inhalation of sodium hydroxide is immediately irritating to the respiratory tract. Swelling or spasms of the larynx leading to upper-airway obstruction and asphyxia can occur after high-dose inhalation. Inflammation of the lungs and an accumulation of fluid in the lungs may also occur."

The CDC notes that "people with asthma or emphysema" -- I have mild but chronic asthma -- "may be more susceptible to the toxicity of this agent."

I carry an inhaler, which I used, and felt better shortly after leaving the site. But sodium hydroxide poses risks for another portion of the population.

"Children may be more vulnerable to corrosive agents than adults because of the relatively smaller diameter of their airways," writes the CDC. There are two elementary schools and a parochial school in the immediate vicinity of the accident site.

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The Accident Scene

While a number of derailed cars had been removed by the time I visited the scene, several remained. The elevated platforms where passengers boarded and disembarked from their Metro trains were above the cars. They were downwind from them on the afternoon of my visit.

Around the accident site, people went about their daily lives. Mothers pushed infants in their strollers while older children tugged at the hem of their skirts. An old man leaned against the railing of a pedestrian bridge that crossed the railroad tracks, smoking a cigarette and polishing his dark glasses. A teenager in a button-down shirt hurried by, possibly late to a job at the strip mall a few hundred feet away. Bicyclists, runners, and hikers passed on a footpath that ran alongside the tracks and the derailed cars.

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Host of 'The Breakdown,' Writer, and Senior Fellow, Campaign for America's Future

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