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Train Derailment Fact Sheet

    "Public Health Consequences from Hazardous Substances Acutely Released During Rail Transit --- South Carolina, 2005; Selected States, 1999—2004" *

    In 1990, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) established the Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) system [] to collect and analyze information about 1) sudden uncontrolled or illegal releases of hazardous substances that require cleanup or neutralization according to federal, state, or local law and 2) threatened releases that result in public health action, such as evacuation. During 1999-2004, 16 states participated in the surveillance system.

    Facts about releases of hazardous substances during rail transport
    • According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, about 4,300 shipments of hazardous materials travel each day by rail; most of these materials safely reach their destinations.
    • These hazardous materials include chemicals and related products and petroleum products, many of which are corrosive, explosive, flammable, or toxic. They can be extremely dangerous when improperly released.
    • These materials often travel over, through, and under densely populated areas or near areas with hospitals, schools, or nursing homes, where a sudden release (such as in a derailment) could cause environmental damage, severe injury, or death.
    • 1,165 (9%) of the 12,845 transportation-related events recorded in HSEES during 1999-2004 were railroad related.
    • Sulfuric acid (7%), sodium hydroxide (6%), and hydrochloric acid (5%) were the substances most frequently released in railroad events.
    • Most railroad events occurred in industrial areas (47%) and commercial areas (27%).
    • A primary cause was found for 91% of the railroad events: of those 61% resulted from equipment failure and 24% resulted from human error.
    Facts about public health impacts of releases of hazardous substances during rail transport include
    • 46 (4%) of the rail events recorded in HSEES resulted in injuries to 271 persons, including 4 deaths.
    • The persons most frequently injured were members of the general public (e.g., nearby residents) (55%) and employees (e.g., of railroads) (28%).
    • The most frequently reported injuries were respiratory irritation (40%), headache (11%), and eye irritation (10%).
    • At least 11,497 people (range: 2-2,500; median: 50) were known to have evacuated; evacuations lasted from less than 1 hour to 13 days (median: 4 hours).
    Measures that government, employers, and first responders can implement to reduce morbidity and mortality from transit-associated hazardous-substance releases
    • Route hazardous materials away from densely populated areas, where feasible.
    • Use HSEES data or other federal, state, and local databases to determine where most releases occur.
    • Develop emergency response plans before hazardous-substance events occur, including a community-based public education campaign detailing proper evacuation (, shelter-in-place plans (, and decontamination procedures (
    • Deploy public warning systems (e.g., sirens), practice drills, and public shelters.
    • Ensure that employees who work with or around hazardous substances undergo continuous job safety training (e.g., hazardous materials training) and have access to appropriate personal protective equipment.
    • Ensure that emergency medical service and hospital emergency department staffs have the necessary guidance to plan for, and improve their ability to respond to, incidents that involve human exposure to hazardous materials (
    • Emphasize the importance of preventive maintenance of equipment and vehicles used in transport.

    Safety tips for people returning home after a release of hazardous substances

    *Information for 2004 is preliminary.