A stalled freight train Wednesday afternoon in downtown Arlington Heights revealed a surprising discovery — a hazmat placard for a common industrial chemical, but highly toxic chemical that is also classified as a potential chemical weapon.
Wednesday a freight train stalled just after noon, which gave the opportunity to take a look at what kind of hazardous materials might be transported on the northwest line of the Union Pacific railroad. Generally, more hazardous loads are considered to be carried on the Union Pacific west line, for example, where Glen Ellyn experienced a derailment that involved spilled ammonia and led to a large evacuation and 14 injuries in 1976. But in Arlington Heights, two of the tanker cars passing through on the Union Pacific northwest line were found to carry particularly hazardous materials. Any residents that live within one-half mile of the railroad tracks should have at least some preparation to act fast if an evacuation order is activated from spillage or fire involving these or other hazardous materials. One of the chemicals labeled on a tanker car was apparently demethyl sulfate — common in industrial use, but also listed as a potential chemical weapon.
The Daily Herald reported in December 2014 that fuel isn’t the only hazardous material emergency firefighters face on railroad incidents. Daily Herald journalist Marni Pyke reported that the “types of chemicals and fuels firefighters could battle on any given day include toxins that pose a health threat with significant exposure such as hydrochloric acid, ammonia or the solvent xylene, and highly flammable liquids such as ethanol or Bakken crude oil.” The Daily Herald reviewed 15½ years of hazmat reports involving trains and found 345 occurrences in the metropolitan region.
Wednesday’s train, according to hazmat placards was transporting dimethyl sulfate (#1595) in one tanker car, and n-Propanol or Propyl alcohol (#1274) in another tanker car.
According to the EPA’s CAMEO database, dimethyl sulfate is a highly poisonous, corrosive, carcinogenic and mutagenic, environmentally hazardous and volatile chemical (presenting an inhalation hazard). Dimethlyl sulfate is also considered a potential chemical weapon. If a person smells the onion smell the substance gives off, they would already have a significant exposure with the possibility of death. Fortunately, accidents involving dimethyl sulfate are rare.
Toxicity of dimethyl sulfate is manifested initially by mucosal inflammation of eyes, nose, oropharynx, and airways. This can progress to severe airway edema and necrosis, and non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema. Other systemic effects include convulsions, delirium, coma, and renal, hepatic, and cardiac failure.
Dimethyl sulfate is a colorless oily liquid, ranging from odorless to a faint onion-like odor. It is very toxic by inhalation. Dimethyl sulfate is a combustible liquid and has a flash point of 182°F. It is slightly soluble in water and decomposed by water to give sulfuric acid with evolution of heat. It is corrosive to metals and tissue.
Dimethyl sulfate has extremely toxic vapors and liquid — a few whiffs or contact on skin could be fatal. Also, dimethyl sulfate is acutely toxic if ingested. Delayed effects which are ultimately fatal may also occur. Lethal concentrations as low as 97 ppm/10 min have been reported in humans. DNA inhibition and damage to human somatic cells, and sister chromatid exchange in human fibroblast cells were observed. Delayed appearance of symptoms may permit unnoticed exposure to lethal quantities.
When involved in a fire in a tanker car, firefighters need to use water spray, fog, or foam, and fight the fire from a maximum distance.
If the tanker is not burning, firefighters are instructed to elminate all ignition sources (no smoking, flares, sparks or flames in the immediate area). All equipment used when handling the product must be grounded. No touching is permitted of damaged containers or spilled material unless firefighters are wearing appropriate protective clothing. Stopping the leak is recommended only if firefighters can do it without risk. A vapor suppressing foam may be used to reduce vapors. Firefighters are advised not to apply water on spilled substance or inside containers, and use water spray to reduce vapors or divert vapor cloud drift. Firefighters are also instructed to avoid allowing water runoff to contact spilled material, and prevent entry into waterways, sewers, basements or confined areas. Mixing with water can cause more release of toxic gases.
In case of large spills as from a tanker car, firefighters are instructed to evacuate an initial area of 200 feet in all directions. If the spill occurs during the day, all persons 0.3 mile from the spill are evacuated. At night, all persons 0.5 miles from the spill would be evacuated. One-half mile from the train station with a south-southwest wind would include an evacuation zone just a few feet south of St. James School — roughly near Vine Street to the west of St James School and Hawthorne Street to the east of the school.
If the tanker leaking Dimethyl sulfate occurred east of Arthur Avenue, the Northwest Central Dispatch 9-1-1 Center would be well within the 200-foot initial evacuation zone. If the leak occurred at Arlington Heights Road or just east of Arlington Heights Road, the entire Police Headquarters and Fire Station 1 would require evacuation.
A second larger black railroad tanker car carried a hazmat placard for highly flammable propanol.
Propanol is easily ignited by heat, sparks or flames. Vapors may form explosive mixtures with air. Vapors may travel to source of ignition and flash back. Most vapors are heavier than air. They will spread along the ground and collect in low or confined areas (sewers, basements, tanks). Vapor explosion hazards exist indoors, outdoors or in sewers. Those substances designated with a (P) may polymerize explosively when heated or involved in a fire. Runoff to the sewer can create a fire or explosion hazard.
Contact with eyes is extremely irritating and may cause burns. Vapors irritate the nose and throat. In high concentrations, propanol may cause nausea, dizziness, headache, and stupor.
In fighting a large fire from a tanker car, firefighters use water spray, fog or alcohol-resistant foam. Firefighters fight a propanol fire from a maximum distance or use unmanned hose holders or monitor nozzles. They cool containers with flooding quantities of water until well after fire is out, and are prepared to immediately withdraw personnel in case of a rising sound from venting safety devices or discoloration of tank. Even firefighters will stay away from tanks engulfed in fire. For massive fire, firefighters are absolutely required to use unmanned hose holders or monitor nozzles; and if this is impossible, they withdraw from area and let the fire burn.
In large spills without fire, initial evacuation is 150 feet in all directions, and downwind evacuation is 300 feet.
If a fire is involved, the evacuation zone is one-half mile in all directions.
In the Daily Herald report, Barrington Fire Chief Jim Arie was quoted saying, “If something’s on fire while you’re trying to evacuate, you’re chasing the clock.”
In Arlington Heights with most of the 9-1-1 center building within 200 feet of the railroad tracks, it is of particular concern that a train disaster near the facility could take out the head of the emergency response nervous system — knocking out the 9-1-1 center by fatalities or evacuation necessity.
At a minimum, the stretch of tracks should have maximum video surveillance to keep watch against a possible terrorist act, and preferably the 9-1-1 center should be moved to a more secure location.
Police officers are usually first on the scene of any crashes or incidents that occur in downtown Arlington Heights or near the railroad tracks anywhere in Arlington Heights. Police officers first on the scene of a freight train wreck or responding to a report of a leak should be particularly cautious on approach. They might even want to be prepared with binoculars to view the hazmat placard from a distance, and an app that identifies chemicals and hazards from the hazmat placard on the freight train — and be aware of wind direction during all shifts.
See Marni Pyke’s article …
Daily Herald Local fire chiefs worry about train hazmat incidents
See also …
CAMEO Chemicals Di-Methyl Sulfate
CAMEO Chemicals N-Propanol
Stay informed with news from The Cardinal’s Emergencies Behind the Scenes Facebook page — Facebook.com/CardinalEmergencies. Includes links to favorite public safety and emergency rescuers and product manufacturers and safety companies that have facebook pages. Submit your pictures or just stay up-to-date on with fire, rescue, EMS and police photo galleries. Please add your public safety photo to the wall album — go direct to the Arlington Cardinal Emergencies Behind the Scenes photos. For a list of all of The Cardinal Facebook fan pages, go to Arlingtoncardinal.com/about/facebook …