Toxic Gas Phosgene Explained: What Are We Actually Breathing?

Toxic Gas Phosgene Explained: What Are We Actually Breathing?

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Toxic Gas Phosgene Explained: What Are We Actually Breathing?

In early February 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, with a cargo of hazardous material. Of the 51 derailed cars, 11 carried toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, isobutylene, and benzene residue. The derailed cars caught fire and burned for multiple days. In a decision made by state officials, emergency crews performed a controlled burn to avoid an explosion which resulted in the release of hydrogen chloride and phosgene gas into the air.

Residents within a one-mile radius were ordered to evacuate. Still, people in nearby Mahoning and Trumbull counties could smell the chemicals in their areas. Early response by the multi-billion dollar Norfolk Southern company included a $25,000 donation to the Red Cross and $1000 to residents to cover costs related to the evacuation. Naturally, residents were concerned that accepting these paltry offerings would bar them from seeking further compensation down the line.

While the controlled burn was executed because of fear of an explosion that could send shrapnel flying into crews working on the cleanup, the results are still frightening because of the known toxicity of phosgene gas and even hydrogen chloride when exposure is at high levels. Suppose you’ve suffered ill effects from the East Palestine train derailment. In that case, we’d like to talk to you about your legal options to recover compensation. 

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  • What Is Phosgene?

    Here are the facts about phosgene:

    • Phosgene is an industrial chemical used in the manufacture of plastics and pesticides.
    • If heated to room temperature (70° degrees), phosgene is a poisonous gas.
    • When cooled and pressurized, phosgene gas can be transformed into a liquid for shipping and storage. Once released, it converts into a gas that stays near ground level and spreads quickly.
    • Phosgene gas may present as colorless or may appear as a white or pale yellow vapor. It smells like freshly mown hay or green corn at low concentrations, but not all exposed may smell it. At high concentrations, the smell can be strong and noxious.
    • Phosgene, on its own, is non-flammable.
    • Phosgene has a military designation of “C.G.” and was used in chemical warfare during World War I.
  • Where Is Phosgene Found, and What Are Its Uses?

    • Phosgene was widely utilized during World War I as a choking agent and was the cause of a significant number of deaths.
    • Phosgene is a naturally occurring organic chemical compound found in the environment.
    • Phosgene is used by businesses to manufacture other chemicals, such as pesticides.
    • When chlorinated hydrocarbon compounds are exposed to high temperatures, phosgene can be formed. These compounds contain the elements chlorine, hydrogen, and carbon.
    • Chlorinated solvents used to dissolve or clean materials can produce phosgene when vapors are exposed to high temperatures.
    • Phosgene gas is heavier than air, so it will likely be found in low-lying areas.
  • How Do People Get Exposed to Phosgene?

    • The risk of exposure is correlated to the proximity of where the gas is released.
    • When phosgene is released into the air, people may be exposed through skin and eye contact as well as breathing in the air containing phosgene.
    • When phosgene is released into waterways, people may be exposed by drinking or touching the water containing phosgene.
    • If phosgene is in liquid form and comes into contact with food, people can be exposed when eating the contaminated food.

    In the case of the East Palestine disaster, residents may come into contact with phosgene through all means listed above.

  • How Does Phosgene Poisoning Work?

    • Phosgene poisoning is contingent on the means of exposure, the amount of exposure, and the length of time an individual is exposed to the compound.
    • Phosgene can cause damage to the lungs, eyes, nose, throat, and skin of those who experience exposure.
  • What Are the Signs of Phosgene Poisoning That East Palestine Residents Should Look For?

    Dangerous levels of exposure to phosgene result in the following immediate signs and symptoms:

    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Coughing
    • Burning sensations in the eyes and throat
    • Blurred vision
    • Watery eyes
    • Skin lesions that resemble frostbite or burns
    • Fluid in the lungs (within 2 to 5 hours of exposure)

    Delayed effects that may not appear for up to 48 hours after exposure include the following:

    • Difficulty breathing
    • Coughing up pink-tinged or white fluid
    • Low blood pressure
    • Heart failure
  • What Is Known About the Long-Term Health Effects of Toxic Phosgene Gas Exposure?

    While the majority of people who have been exposed to phosgene recover without long-term issues (according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), some have reported chronic bronchitis and emphysema. However, phosgene is extraordinarily toxic when individuals inhale it, even short term. One of the most significant issues is that we don’t really know about the long-term effects of exposure because there have been limited studies on humans, for obvious reasons.

    Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, were given the all-clear by officials to return to their homes following a controlled burn of vinyl chloride gas and other chemicals, which released toxic phosgene gas and a cocktail of other potentially hazardous materials into the environment. While testing had been conducted to check if there were concerning levels of toxins in the air and water around East Palestine, some residents who returned could detect a strong lingering smell of chemicals and quickly developed symptoms of toxic phosgene gas exposure like skin rashes and nausea.

  • What are Chronic Effects of Toxic Gas Phosgene Exposure?

    Low-level but consistent exposure to phosgene may cause irreversible breathing issues like emphysema and fibrosis, as well as an increase in certain types of pneumonia. Additionally, some reports show that exposure to phosgene may result in Reactive Airway Dysfunction Syndrome, a form of asthma caused by chemicals and other irritants. No information exists on reproductive or developmental harm in humans or animals. Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lacks any data concerning links to phosgene gas exposure and cancer. It’s simply an unknown that doesn’t help the victims of the latest Norfolk Southern train derailment disaster.

    We’ve seen throughout modern history, though, that companies accountable for exposing individuals to toxic chemicals and products usually try to shirk their responsibilities to the victims and skew data in their favor. Some have even touted their products as healthy. Here are a few examples:

    Asbestos - Court documents show how the asbestos industry used its control and influence to keep the dangers of asbestos hidden for decades. Reports from as early as the 19th century suggested the serious hazards of asbestos. However, as usual, the companies that manufactured asbestos chose profits over the health of employees and the public. Some covered up medical research that would have led to stricter regulations, while others kept damaging X-ray scans a secret from the employees who had results that revealed the development of respiratory disease. The scandal even extended to companies that worked closely with the asbestos industry, such as Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which aided in concealing the adverse health effects.

    Radium - The discovery of radium by Marie Curie led to the development of the U.S. Radium Corporation, which produced a high-tech glow-in-the-dark paint that allowed World War I foot soldiers to see instruments at night. The business also used the product on household items. Once the dangers of the compound were better understood, the company insisted to the public that minute amounts of radium in their paint were harmless. Still, that wasn’t so for their workers who regularly touched and ingested the compound because of the delicate nature of their work, which was painting tiny numbers on wristwatches. Most of the employees were women. When one of the workers began showing disturbing symptoms, her doctor suggested it might be tied to her work at U.S. Radium.

    When she started investigating, a supposed expert from Columbia University asked to examine her and declared her to be in perfect health. However, that expert was not a doctor, and he and his alleged esteemed colleague turned out to be none other than a toxicologist on the U.S. Radium payroll and, the other, a vice president of U.S. Radium. Even worse, when the female workers started to complain about illness and began to die, they would try to shame and hush them by saying it was syphilis.  

    Unfortunately, since U.S. Radium was a powerful and influential company with deep pockets, it took two years for the workers to engage a lawyer willing to take them on. By then, many had become too ill to be actively involved in the case and died shortly afterward.

    Tobacco - Besides asbestos, the tobacco industry is probably the best known for concealing and suppressing data that would reveal the dangers and addictiveness of its use. They falsely marketed “low-tar or “light” cigarettes as less harmful because they understood smokers would opt for something with reduced harmful effects rather than fully quit so they could retain customers. They purposefully targeted young people because they knew their older customers would die off from the ill effects of tobacco and needed replacement consumers. The effects of second-hand smoke were played down, while internal documents show they acknowledged the health threats.

    Despite their claims otherwise, tobacco companies have manipulated nicotine levels to create a more addictive product and have done so since 1954 or earlier. Tobacco contains radioactive particles that result in lung cancer. While tobacco companies knew of techniques that could have removed this radiation, they chose not to because it could make it harder for smokers’ brains to absorb nicotine. Thus, they wouldn’t get the rush that keeps them addicted.  

    Lead - In the early 20th century, research at General Motors developed Ethyl Gas which contained lead (however, there was no mention of lead in the product label.) Workers who produced the product soon began to become psychotic and die, which caused the Surgeon General to intervene. Still, the lead researcher originally hired to be a consultant on preventative recommendations became empowered by Ethyl Corp, General Motors, DuPont, and others. His sole opinion dictated the continued use of lead and downplayed any adverse health effects on the public. The researcher, Kehoe, had developed the science that others would use to gauge “normal” lead levels. That is, until further analysis by another scientist, Patterson, that wasn’t beholden to G.M., and other chemical corporations showed that Kehoe’s research was fundamentally flawed. There basically aren’t any “normal” levels of lead. However, it wasn’t until 1990 that lead was removed from gasoline. 

  • What Should You Do if You Were Exposed to Toxic Phosgene Gas?

    1. Leaving the area where the phosgene gas was released is the first priority.
    2. Remove and dispose of any clothing you were wearing and wash your entire body quickly with lots of soap and water
    3. Get medical care as quickly as possible
    4. Contact Morgan and Morgan
  • Working With Morgan and Morgan

    It’s likely that Norfolk Southern is responsible for the release of over 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride into the atmosphere of East Palestine, Ohio. That is more than two times the annual amount of vinyl chloride released in the U.S. by industries that use the chemical in their products. We don’t yet know what the future holds for residents of East Palestine and surrounding communities affected by this preventable environmental disaster. Still, we know we will help them fight for what’s right. Morgan and Morgan have taken on some of the largest companies in the nation, including big tobacco and utility companies, and delivered highly favorable results for the clients we represented. We’re prepared to do the same for you.

    Contact us today if you’d like to discuss joining a class action against Norfolk Southern. 

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