More than two dozen people were hospitalized with respiratory problems after a freight train derailed Friday morning and sent hazardous material spilling into a creek in the southern New Jersey town of Paulsboro.
Paulsboro residents were asked to stay inside for hours and schools on temporary lockdown as emergency and hazmat crews responded to the scene, NBC 10 Philadelphia reported.
Gloucester Office of Emergency Management confirmed that a Conrail train derailed after the bridge it was traveling on collapsed just after 7 a.m. Friday near Commerce Street in Paulsboro, Gloucester County. It was the second time in a little more than three years that the railroad bridge collapsed.
Six of the train's cars were dumped into Mantua Creek. Four of the cars contained vinyl chloride, a colorless flammable gas with a sweet odor that is used primarily to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes and that evaporates quickly. One of the train cars was compromised, releasing about 180,000 pounds of the chemical into the creek, according to Conrail spokesperson John Enright.
Acute exposure to vinyl chloride via inhalation can cause dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, and even a loss of consciousness, and it is reported to be slightly irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract, according to a statement from Gloucester County Freeholder Director Robert Damminger.
"The company [Conrail] will offer assistance to residents who sought medical attention," Conrail spokesperson John Enright said.
Residents were initially told to remain in their homes and local schools were placed on lockdown as emergency officials assessed air quality concerns. At least 28 people were transported from the scene to Underwood Memorial Hospital, all complaining of respiratory problems. Officials confirmed that some of the injured were workers from the Paulsboro Marine Terminal.
“Personal safety is our number one concern,” U.S. Coast Guard Petty officer Nick Ameen told NBC10.
Officials determined at about 11 a.m. that air quality had improved, meaning the situation was under control. However, they cautioned that the next significant threat will be when Conrail attempts to lift the cars out of the water without releasing any more chemicals.
"Right now, the remaining chemical is frozen, at the bottom of the car," a Paulsboro official said. "[but} The Conrail engineers and hazmat crews are experts at plugging holes and sealing things and I'm sure they'll do what they need to do to stabilize that product."
The cars, however, will not be lifted out of the water until at least Saturday because it will take a day to bring in a crane large enough to lift the cars.