After Toxic Train Derailment, Is Pet Food Supply in Danger?


Aerial view of a controlled burn of chemicals after the Ohio train derailment. (Photo: RJ Bobin/Orlowski Designs LLC)
  • After the Feb. 3, 2023, train derailment, extremely toxic chemicals were released into the environment and air.
  • These chemicals are “silent dangers” that already exist in our environment. They are much more common than most people realize.
  • Despite rampant rumors, it seems unlikely that the U.S. pet food supply will be significantly affected by this newest chemical event.

Online rumors and speculation, spread widely by social media, are not a new phenomenon. A crisis, a devastating event or a dangerous accident raises public fears about how the event will affect them or their lives.

Such is the case after a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, caused leaks of chemicals into the area, toxic smoke as chemicals burned, and hazardous vapors released into the air to avoid explosions.

But are concerns about the lingering effects of the chemicals involved in the Feb. 3, 2023, train derailment overblown?

A Toxic Stew of Chemicals

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has confirmed that vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate were two primary chemicals released in the derailment. Burning materials containing chloride, such as the vinyl chloride from the train, releases hydrogen chloride and phosgene into the air.

The railway company, Norfolk Southern Corporation, has reported that two additional chemicals that leaked from the train cars were ethyl acrylate and ethylene glycol mono butyl ether.

“These six chemicals can be harmful to humans,” experts say, “depending on the amount and length of exposure.”

Eric D. Olson, a senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, stated in an email, “They all pose hazards if inhaled.”

Drone footage from 3 days after the train derailment. (Video still: National Transportation Safety Board)

Officials do not have exact numbers regarding how many chemicals spilled and leaked into the ground or vaporized into the air. The EPA and other investigators must determine the volume of chemicals that leaked, possibly leaching into groundwater and posing other soil contamination hazards.

According to Cornell University soil and crop scientist Murray McBride, “Vinyl chloride is highly mobile in soils and water and can persist for years in groundwater.”

Environmental experts say the fire also may have produced dioxins or other extremely toxic substances.

The real questions on many people’s minds are:

  • How much of these toxins will get into the soil, air, water and food supply?
  • How concerned should we be?
  • What are the consequences for people and animals in the area?
  • How far will the impact of the toxins reach?
  • Does the United States need to be concerned about the future of our agriculture and food supply?

Thousands of Fish Dead

Ohio DNR officials have confirmed that at least 3,500 fish in the Ohio River and its tributaries died within days of the accident.

Videos on social media have also shown dead fish being collected.

However, there are no other verified reports of animal deaths or illnesses to date. Local veterinarians are monitoring and will report any animal issues related to the chemical spill.

The EPA has conceded that a large contamination plume is floating down the Ohio River. Four tributaries covering 7.5 miles are contaminated. Still, the agency says it is confident that the contaminated waters are contained and not affecting any water supplies. Officials maintain there is no continuing danger from the chemical spill.

Not everyone believes that — including many of the residents of the East Palestine area who have suffered physical reactions to the smoke and debris in the area, particularly inhalation complications and skin irritations.

The EPA has assisted with the indoor air monitoring of more than 500 homes, and so far the agency has detected no levels of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride that would be a cause for concern.

An environmental lab is testing water from residential wells near East Palestine, according to NBC News. The results have not yet been released.

The Stockpiling of Pet Food Has Already Begun

Globally, there is also concern about the chemical spill, most notably by Chinese pet owners worried that the safety of pet food products manufactured near the area has been compromised.

Specifically naming several popular pet food brands, they are reportedly stockpiling their supply of pet food in case the ingredients used to make the pet food become unhealthy.

Regardless of whether those concerns are valid, the impact of a dip in consumer confidence could be significant for global pet food sales. China’s consumption of imported pet food increased by 25% annually from 2016 through 2021.

Dioxins — How Bad Can They Be?

Dioxins are considered the second-most toxic chemical known to man. Only radioactive waste is more toxic. 

Dioxins form when products that include carbon and chloride burn. According to the EPA, even small amounts of chlorine can produce dioxins. 

The chemicals and gases created by burning materials that include chloride create some of the most toxic chemicals in the world. 

Dioxins are highly toxic to all life and far more deadly than asbestos or lead. The World Health Organization has listed dioxins as a member of the “Dirty Dozen” — a group of dangerous chemicals referred to as persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

There is no acceptable level of exposure to chlorinated dioxins.

How Many Dioxins Did the Train Derailment Fire Produce?

The volume of chemicals and materials, the duration and the temperature of the fire, and weather conditions, including wind, are all factors that enter into the equation of determining the toxicity of the soot, ash, soil and other matter remaining after the fire.

Dioxins created from fire attach themselves to particles such as soot, smoke and dust, spreading as the fire’s hot gases rise. As the air containing these particles cools, it settles and becomes part of the soil, water and dust particles that will be stirred into the air.

The EPA acknowledges that dioxins are transported by wind and water over long distances and can remain in the environment for centuries.

Members of the Ohio National Guard’s 52nd Civil Support Team provided assistance. (Photo: Ohio National Guard)

How Far Will the Chlorinated Dioxins Reach?

Dioxins travel globally, and due to global atmospheric circulation, they travel toward the Earth’s polar regions. Warm air currents rise and carry the particles to colder climates, where they settle back on the ground.

Dioxins bioaccumulate, which means they can build up in animal tissues—especially fat tissue. Fish such as salmon and cod and mammals like whales, seals, and polar bears that live in cooler climates need to maintain higher body fat levels. Therefore, they are susceptible to bioaccumulating dioxins.

The particles created in fires that float in the smoke are microscopic, often less than 3 microns (half the size of a red blood cell). When inhaled, these particles tainted with dioxin can easily bypass the lungs and enter the bloodstream.

It may be nearly impossible to determine the range dioxins may have traveled through the air during the fire or the levels of dioxins that will remain in the rivers and tributaries, groundwater, dust, soot and contaminated soil.

It will undoubtedly take a lot of time and research to understand how this event will trickle down into the lives of the people and animals in the area.

Dioxins and Their Effects on Humans and Animals

Even in tiny amounts measured in parts per trillion, dioxins can shorten the lives of people and animals exposed to them — and potentially the lives of future generations. 

Here are some examples of what 1 part per trillion (ppt) might look like:

  • 1 ppt is the same as a single drop of food coloring in 18 million gallons of water
  • 1 second in nearly 32,000 years
  • 1 ounce in 7.5 billion gallons of water

When people and animals take in dioxins through food or from the air, the chemicals are retained inside their cells in the fatty tissue. Once there, the dioxins alter cellular and chemical balances that the body requires for normal bodily function, as well as reproductive processes.

Skin lesions, patchy dark spots on the skin, and altered liver function can occur from short-term exposure. Long-term exposure can be fatal. 

According to the World Health Organization, long-term exposure to dioxins can lead to impairment of the immune and nervous systems and reproductive abilities and affects the endocrine system. Adverse health effects include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, altered metabolism and immune system responses, early menopause, reduced testosterone and thyroid hormones, and can affect an animal’s growth. Health issues like these apply to pets, livestock and even plants exposed to dioxins.

Dioxins influence an almost endless list of diseases. Barry Commoner, a cellular biologist, explained that dioxins enhance the activity of the enzyme system. They affect it so powerfully that they sharply increase the activity of small amounts of carcinogens found in food, water and air, which “influences tumor production by enhancing the activity of carcinogens.”

In other words, dioxins are a power booster for other toxins that can cause cancer and other diseases.

Is the Food Supply Contaminated?

How long will it take for the long-term effects of dioxins to appear in our food and animals?

This is yet another unknown. It could be years before we know the answer.

However, dioxins already exist in our environment.

The chemical spill in Ohio is not the first or even most significant event that has produced dioxins. The presence of dioxins is much more prevalent than the most people realize, and it is one of the silent dangers that needs more scrutiny and increased public awareness.

According to the EPA, the burning of household trash, often referred to as “backyard” or “barrel burning,” is the largest known source of dioxin emissions. Studies have shown that even tiny amounts of materials containing chlorine can form dioxins when burning waste. The backyard burning of waste materials creates higher levels of dioxins than industrial incinerators.

Due to the variety of materials in household trash, many types and amounts of chemicals form by burning. Depending on the substances in the waste, as little as 10 pounds of trash burned each day could produce as much air pollution as a modern incinerator burning 400,000 pounds of garbage daily.  

The volume of toxic chemicals and pollutants generated in a typical residential structure fire is even more alarming. Every time a residential or commercial fire occurs, the dioxins produced are the equivalent of thousands of burn barrels.

Are Dioxins Already in Pet Food Ingredients?

Considering all the various ways we can come into contact with dioxins, the EPA estimates that over 90% of human exposure to dioxins is through our food — mainly meat, dairy products, fish and shellfish.

There is no safe level of dioxin in meat and animal products.

Many foods that humans consume contain animal fats, such as ice cream, chocolate, cheese and more. Pet food contains fats from fish and fish oils, animal fats and vegetable oils. Additionally, a rendering process converts animal waste into usable ingredients and is used to produce some of the animal fats that go into the pet food. Rendering does not eliminate dioxins; instead, the dioxins move along into the pet food.

Despite some local impacts from the Ohio chemical fire, it seems unlikely that the supply of ingredients used in pet food products will be significantly affected.”

The amount of animal fat used in pet food varies depending on the manufacturer and the product. Animal fat is a common ingredient in many types of pet food because it is a source of essential fatty acids that are an important part of a pet’s diet.

Humans are likely exposed to dioxins in higher dosages than our animals. Dioxins are found not only in the food we feed to animals but also in the animals themselves, multiplying the exposure contained in things such as eggs, dairy products and other animal fat products.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is aware of dioxins and chemically related compounds (dioxin-like compounds, or DLCs) and has been monitoring the amount of DLCs in food.

Is There an Immediate Threat to the Pet Food Supply?

BrightPet Nutrition Group has a manufacturing plant in Lisbon, Ohio, less than 14 miles from East Palestine, Ohio. It is unknown at this time whether smoke or ashes traveled in the direction of Libson.

The second-closest major pet food manufacturer is Ainsworth Pet Nutrition of Meadville, Pennsylvania, about 80 miles from East Palestine.

Champion Pet Foods, manufacturer of the Orijen and Acana brands, has 3 manufacturing locations, the closest to East Palestine being in Auburn, Kentucky, about 500 miles away.

Blue Buffalo is manufactured in Richmond, Illinois, which is also about 500 miles away from East Palestine.

In short, we simply don’t know if there have been any impacts to these manufacturing facilities or to the pet food ingredients. At this point, any suggestion otherwise would be wild speculation.

How Can We Assess the Magnitude of the Toxins Left Behind?

Authorities are not at a point where they can compare the toxins produced by this chemical spill to other catastrophic events, such as large chemical fires or major building fires. 

For example, could a comparison be drawn between the chemical fire in East Palestine, Ohio, and the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York City? 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fires within the debris pile and the collapse of 7 World Trade Center burned for more than 3 months through the end of December 2001, with continued flare-ups in 2002, releasing carcinogenic combustion byproducts and dioxins. These contaminants remained in Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn for an undetermined amount of time after 9/11.

The debris field from the World Trade Center disaster was significantly larger than any debris produced by the fire in Ohio, to say nothing of the ash, soot, debris and smoke spreading many times farther than that produced by the fire in Ohio. 

More than 20 years later, thousands of people and animals still suffer from exposure to the toxins produced by the 9/11 attacks. Still, reports of a significant impact on our food supply from that event do not exist. 

This is why, despite some local impacts from the Ohio chemical fire, it seems unlikely that the supply of ingredients used in pet food products will be significantly affected.

What Happens Now?

The FDA monitors the safety of the ingredients in pet food manufactured in the United States.

The agency is aware of dioxins in the food supply chain and says it is working toward finding an acceptable level that animals can consume. Although experts counter that no level of dioxin in the food is safe, the fact that it is being studied and evaluated can give us a little reassurance. 

Scientific studies take time. Unfortunately, people and animals will suffer until the answers are known. With any luck, better testing equipment and more thorough testing of materials we create using chemicals will come along sooner rather than later.

The United States will continue to advance scientifically, producing new chemicals that do miraculous things or can be used to make exceptional products. At the same time, we must face the fact that we are increasing the unknown factors related to our health.

Many of these advances take years to develop, implement and use enough to measure the invention’s resulting consequences or lasting effects. The effects may not show up until so much time has elapsed that it becomes almost impossible to pinpoint the problem’s origin. In the meantime, we struggle with the unknowns and their impact on our lives.

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