Western Minnesota train derailment fire fueled by ethanol: Experts talk health concerns, environmental impact

Environmental experts weigh in on impact of western Minnesota train derailment

MINNEAPOLIS -- A train derailed in western Minnesota early Thursday and several of the cars caught on fire, fueled by ethanol. 

"It's concerning, there's no doubt about it," said Professor Carl Rosen, who heads the department of Soil, Water and Climate at the University of Minnesota. "Trains are carrying highly toxic materials. Fortunately, in this case, they're not that toxic."

Rosen says it should be considered "lucky" that ethanol and corn syrup are all that spilled out.

"These two compounds are compounds we actually consume to some degree," said Rosen.

No injuries have been reported, but there are some concerns about the health effects the incident could have on the surrounding community. 

According to a chemicals expert who recently spoke with CNN, ethanol's main danger is that it's highly flammable. However, there are other health concerns associated with it.

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Purdue University professor Andrew Whelton says ethanol, like many other chemicals, is toxic when inhaled, comes into contact with skin or ingested. However, it requires a certain concentration to be a health hazard.

Whelton says ethanol is highly soluble in water, so it's easier to dilute than the chemicals spilled in the East Palestine, Ohio derailment.

BNSF, the company that operates this train, says they plan to burn off the ethanol. Rosen says the soil will take care of the corn syrup.

"The microbes will use it as a food source and break it down," said Rosen.

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Whelton says it is still to be determined what else may have been mixed with the ethanol on the Minnesota train, and different blends may have different health risks. 

In Minnesota, there are 19 freight railroads making up nearly 4,400 miles of track through farmland, along roadways and in many of our neighborhoods. The most common materials they carry are metallic ores for steel, farm products, food products and chemicals.

BNSF says there is no risk for toxic exposure in the air from the train derailment. 

NTSB investigators have not shared yet exactly how much material has spilled out.

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