Did train wrecks spill hazardous chemicals near your home? A look at the data

Despite the images of flames and public evacuations after train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, late Friday, railway incidents requiring nearby residents to flee possible explosions or potentially toxic fumes are rare, a USA TODAY analysis of federal government data found.

Technological improvements to the railcars crisscrossing the nation’s tracks to ensure better crashworthiness and temperature regulation, retiring old cars, and a decline in crude oil transport since their peak in 2015 have made railcars less likely to leak or spill hazardous materials, experts told USA TODAY.

Yet when wrecks do occur, they may serve as difficult reality checks for the many Americans who live near railroad tracks moving massive amounts of freight, including potentially toxic chemicals, each year. In East Palestine, residents were only allowed to return home after days of evacuation, sometimes under threat of arrest, due to safety concerns around toxic chemical release.

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