No One Knows How Much Chemical Spilled In This Scary Ohio Train DerailmentS

A freight train carrying flammable chemicals derailed near Columbus, Ohio early this morning, causing several of its cars to explode. Authorities evacuated nearly 100 homes in the area as fire crews battled the blaze.

A photographer near the scene of the accident told ABC News that he could see light from the fire ten miles away. So far, only two injuries have been reported, but the photographer said that the fumes from the fire made him nauseous.

The train, operated by Norfolk Southern Railroad, was carrying denatured alcohol and styrene, which is used to make plastic and styrofoam. If you've ever thrown a styrofoam cup into a fire (and if you have, shame on you) or blown a fireball out of your mouth with denatured alcohol, you know how quickly those substances burn. Now multiply those lame party tricks by the amount contained in several freight cars, and, well, you get the picture.

HAZMAT crews are working to clean up the spill, but its lasting impacts are difficult to predict. Styrene is a known carcinogen. I reached out to the Columbus Fire Department, Norfolk Southern Railroad, and even the National Transportation Safety Board, but no one knew how much of either chemical had been spilled.

No One Knows How Much Chemical Spilled In This Scary Ohio Train DerailmentS

"There's been a derailment, but that doesn't mean there's been a spill or an explosion," said David Pidgeon, Norfolk Southern's public information officer. Yeah, how about those AP photos of a huge fire burning in the middle of a neighborhood near Ohio State University. Sounds like someone is an amateur at public affairs nightmare mitigation.

Mark Morey, a chemistry PhD who works for a Department of Energy contractor near Santa Barbara, Calif., told me that if you burn styrene completely, water and carbon dioxide are the only byproducts. But that's in a controlled setting where someone can ensure complete combustion.

"The problem is when it isn't burned completely," he said. "You're going to get a lot of compounds you don't want."

Those compounds are called poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, which can range from harmless to highly toxic, depending upon what they attach to. That's to say nothing of the yet undisclosed amount of styrene that may have spilled in the crash.

We'll find out more as the NTSB investigates the accident scene.

Photo credit: Associated Press