EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WKBN) – A “controlled release” to vent the chemicals from the still-burning train cars in East Palestine has some wondering what happens when those chemicals are inhaled.

Dr. Nicholas Proia is a pulmonologist in Boardman who specializes in pulmonary and critical care medicine. He says if you inhale vapors from the train, you may see some symptoms, but nothing long-term.

“Human exposure to vinyl chloride is significant and in factories where it used to be made, people would come up with liver cancer and all kinds of malignancies. In this case with the spill, concentrations are relatively small and exposures are relatively transient, so you wouldn’t see anything like cancers developing or anything like that,” Proia said. “But you can get some irritation of the airways. It doesn’t cause any long-term harm with this relatively transient exposure, but your airways can be irritable. You can wheeze. You can cough. You can have a runny nose.”

Proia says vinyl chloride has a sweet smell but at higher concentrations. Most people won’t smell anything if they inhale it. He says he’s gotten several calls from doctors about what to do if patients start having issues.

“I’ve talked to a bunch of family practitioners in the area who practice down toward that way and they ask ‘if I see patients what do I do?’ If that’s the case, usually an inhaler,” Proia said. “If they’re really in bad shape or they had asthma to begin with and this really provoked it, you may need to a steroid or something to calm the airways after the toxic exposure.”

He says his best advice is to keep your distance from the area and if you think you’ve been exposed, look for any respiratory signs or symptoms. Then, call your doctor.

“There’s no reason for hysteria or anything like that. The biggest hazard right now is a fire hazard because it’s so combustible,” said Proia. “In this case, keeping your distance is probably best.  And if you do have some irritation of your airways, go to your doctor and they’ll be able to fix that up.” 

And if your skin comes into contact with these chemicals?

“It’s a vapor. The gas itself that’s being evaporated into the atmosphere is heavier than air. So it does stay close to the ground. There could be some skin contact, but it shouldn’t be much more than a slight irritant,” said Proia.

The doctor says the main symptoms to watch out for are coughing and wheezing.

“If you breathe a lot of it in, you’ll get nausea, headaches and visual disturbances. If it’s a huge amount you can lose consciousness.  But it probably shouldn’t happen for anyone who is the mile distance away,” Proia said.