“An unacceptable threat to human health and safety.” That’s how more than 300 medical professionals are describing plans to build out crude oil-by-rail facilities in the Northwest.

Responding to concerns about unprecedented oil industry expansion plans in the region—the same schemes that Sightline has been documenting—the Oregon and Washington chapters of Physicians for Social Responsibility analyzed 125 peer-reviewed medical journal articles and other reliable medical sources. They summarized the findings in a February 2015 report, “Position Statement on Crude Oil Transport and Storage,” that connects the proposed projects to increased rates of illness, health care costs, and hospitalizations.

Sightline believes the Physicians’ research is a serious indictment of the projects. So with permission from the authors, we are further summarizing some of the key findings from their research.

Train fires, explosions, and derailments

Perhaps the most obvious health risk of oil trains is their propensity for catastrophic derailments. In fact, at least 10 crude oil trains have exploded recently in North America, the best-known occurring in July 2013 when an oil train in Quebec province killed 47 people.

Derailments are more common than many realize: between June 2011 and December 2013, a freight train derailed, on average, every 3.5 days in the Northwest region. Furthermore, the US Department of Transportation reports that in 2013 alone there were 154 rail car “failures” and 116 “episodes” involving trains carrying crude oil.

Increased air pollution

People who live in proximity to train traffic are vulnerable to the health impacts of traffic-related air pollution, which increases cancer rates, particularly lung and breast cancer. Living in an area with heavy traffic-derived pollution corresponds with higher rates of neurodevelopmental disorders in children, including ADHD and lowered IQ.

Increased oil-by-rail traffic—up to 100 trains per week in the Northwest, according to Sightline’s latest analysis—would mean higher levels of exhaust from the locomotives’ diesel engines. That exhaust is hazardous because it contains harmful fine particles that can deeply penetrate our lungs. The World Health Organization has classified diesel engine exhaust as carcinogenic to humans. A 2011 study found that these particles pose the largest potential cancer risk of all air toxics in the Puget Sound area. Women, children, and the elderly have particular vulnerabilities to these particles, even at low levels.

Fine particulate matter is also connected to higher rates of infant bronchitis and respiratory deaths during the first year of life, and young children experience overall decreased lung function. Exposure to diesel particulate matter and the gaseous pollutants that arise from burning diesel is linked to asthma, lung disease, heart disease, and death.

First responder delays

Train traffic at intersections with streets—known as “at-grade crossings”—poses concerns for ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars. According to a 2014 study by the Washington Department of Ecology, the residents of the 93 towns and cities in Washington that are on or near crude-by-rail routes could experience emergency service delays.

A single oil train moving at 10 miles per hour could block an intersection for 8 minutes or more—potentially the difference between life and death. Even 5- to 10-minute delays can critically alter a person’s chance of survival, particularly in the case of trauma or cardiovascular or respiratory emergencies. In some Northwest towns, one stalled train could effectively shut off all routes across the tracks.

Physicians for Social Responsibility cite the city of Aberdeen on Grays Harbor, where three oil-by-rail terminals are planned for development, as an example of the length of traffic delays that will be caused by oil trains. Individual commercial streets in town would be crossed by 6 to 10 additional slow-moving trains per day, each train blocking the street for 17 minutes. Moreover, the mile-and-a-half-long trains obstruct many streets simultaneously, eliminating detour routes for first responders and further increasing the risk of fatalities due to emergency vehicle delays. Ironically, the cardiac and respiratory incidents where immediate care is most critical are the same incidents that are likely to increase due to particulate air pollution from increased train traffic.

  • “Ironically, the cardiac and respiratory incidents where immediate care is most critical are the same incidents that are likely to increase due to particulate air pollution from increased train traffic.”

    Noise and vibrations

    Freight trains are noisy, and noise is, all by itself, a health problem. High-decibel noise elevates stress hormones, which in turn increase the risk factors for heart disease. The World Health Organization’s “Guidelines on Community Noise” recommends that noise events exceeding 45 decibels —a level comparable to light traffic —be limited when possible, but train horns register at 96 to 100 decibels—a level of noise similar to motorcycles, belt sanders, and hand drills. Railway noise has greater health impacts than road noise does, and railway noise is difficult to limit because, for safety reasons, engineers must sound train horns in advance of nearly every public crossing.

    Even when we are sleeping, our bodies respond to noise. People who live along rail lines are at risk of health impacts from nocturnal railway noise, including decreased REM sleep, increased fatigue, changes in mood, and more serious effects. For example, a 2013 study showed that train noise and vibrations led to a significant acceleration of heart rate in 79 percent of sleeping participants. Researchers believe that these heart rate accelerations affect the long-term cardiovascular health of people living in close proximity to frequent rail traffic.

    Oil Storage Tank Fires and Explosions

    Even once the oil has been delivered, it can still be hazardous—and the Physicians’ report expresses particular concern about locating oil storage tanks in population centers, including proposals for large volumes stored near schools and a commercial center in Hoquiam, Washington.

    Oil storage tanks are at risk of fires and explosions from both man-made and natural causes, and these incidents are well documented. For example, a human-error fire in Raleigh, Mississippi in 2006 killed three workers after the fire traveled from one oil storage tank to another through connecting pipelines. And a 2005 fire at a large oil storage facility in the UK burned for five days, sending 240 people to the emergency room. Even though the oil storage facility was located far from a residential area, forty members of the public had to seek emergency medical care as a result of the fire.

    What’s more, several proposed storage tank sites in Washington and Oregon are in earthquake and tsunami zones, which increase the risk of spills, fires, and explosions. (For a more complete look at the risks of oil tank siting in population centers, see the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility position paper on the subject.)

    Water pollution and oil spills

    The Physicians’ report expresses strong concerns that oil-loading accidents or oil storage leaks may pollute drinking water systems. Chemicals in crude oil can damage our organs in several ways, and in some cases they can lead to cancer and reproductive health risks. Oil contamination of seafood is of significant concern, as is pollution of subsistence and tribal fishing resources. Nearly all of the 29 federally recognized tribes of Washington State have the potential to be impacted by rail or marine incidents associated with crude oil transportation.

    Finally, spilled oil can expose cleanup workers and residents to serious toxins, potentially causing multi-generational birth defects and lung disease, among other problems. Even the cleanup chemicals to disperse spilled oil are highly toxic. The Corexit 9500A dispersant used during the BP Deep Horizon oil cleanup increased the toxicity of exposure by as much as 52 times above the level of crude oil alone. As oil transportation and storage projects increase in Washington and Oregon, so will the risk of spills and the probability that emergency personnel and others will come into contact with crude oil’s toxic chemicals.