After a train crash in Paulsboro, N.J., a cloud of toxic gas sent 28 people to the hospital. Mantua Township resident Ronald Morris was among them.
Nearly, two years later, Morris says his fatigue, a rash on his back and lots of missed workdays are related to his exposure to vinyl chloride. The chemical escaped from an overturned Consolidated Rail Corporation train that Friday morning, Nov. 30.
"It was nothing. It just seemed like normal morning to me," said Morris, who is a carpenter.
He was driving to meet his father in Paulsboro to fix a client's door. Around that same time, the first 911 calls were coming in to police.
In the recordings, residents seem anxious. One woman urges emergency personnel to hurry: "The train derailed at the train bridge in Paulsboro," she said. "Smoke's everywhere." On another call, a man says he's having trouble breathing.
Morris says it was around 7:30 a.m. when his truck hit a fog.
"I rolled down the window and smelled outside, it smelled weird to me, it didn't smell like smoke, I could just about taste it," Morris said.
Four Conrail tanker cars toppled that morning. Morris was a quarter mile away and says the chemical cloud engulfed his truck.
"At that point, it started feeling like it was irritating me to where it was kind of like burning my skin, it just felt like it was on me," he said.
Assessing the emergency response
Morris recounted the incident from his attorney's office in Cherry Hill. He and hundreds of others are suing Conrail. Lawyer Mark Cuker with Williams Cuker Berezofsky wants Conrail to pay for the disruption to his clients' lives and their future medical expenses.
The company has agreed to pay for emergency room bills from that day in 2012, Cuker says, but he wants Conrail to also pony up for regular cancer screenings and check-ups.
Cuker says Conrail was slow to reveal the hazards of vinyl chloride on the morning of the accident—information, he said, which could have resulted in a safer response.
Spokesman Michael Hotra said Conrail cannot comment on the claims of anyone suing the company. "We will address the claims of litigants through our responsive legal filings and in court," Hotra said.
Last month, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board pointed to a string of mistakes following the derailment in Paulsboro. One board member called the emergency response "abysmal."
The post-accident report says: "Although air dispersion modeling tools are readily available, the incident command team did not use any of these tools to evaluate toxic exposure during the first hours following the accident."
So strong you could 'taste it'
That failure makes it hard to know how much vinyl chloride residents came into contact with that day, but Mark Cuker has an estimate: "If you can smell it, it means it's present at a level of 3,000 parts per million. That's what's called the odor threshold for vinyl chloride. If you can taste it, it's got to be even more than that and Ron's not the only person that said he could taste it."
"I was coughing up phlegm, and stuff like that. I started getting dizzy, I was feeling nauseous," Morris said.
When he arrived at work, his father rushed Morris to the emergency room. At Underwood Memorial Hospital, he was taken straight to a decontamination room, then doctors gave him a breathing treatment, hooked him to an IV and monitored his blood pressure for several hours before he was discharged.
But later, back at home, Morris was sick again.
"I was actually coughing up blood and stuff," Morris said "I was like a sack of potatoes hugging the white porcelain."
Morris' wife, Kristen Pickel called 911 and her husband was taken to the emergency room again. The family got through that day, but said she's been worried ever since.
Morris said he's tired frequently—so fatigued that he misses days of work, and he has a recurring rash on his face and back. He believes those symptoms were caused by vinyl chloride Twice a day, he said, he struggles to catch his breath.
"He's not the same person, he has no joy anymore," Pickel said.
"I don't know: Is this going to give me cancer? I got young kids, it's just scary," Morris said.
"Vinyl chloride is bad stuff," said toxicologist Richard Parent, who leads Consultox Limited in Maine. He's not involved in the Conrail case but often works as an expert witness when disputes over chemicals go to court.
Many chemicals have been shown to cause cancer in lab animals, but a smaller number are human carcinogens. Vinyl chloride is one of them.
The chemical is valuable in the production of PVC piping and other building supplies.
Most of what's known about the health effects of vinyl chloride are based on workers who were exposed decades ago over long periods of time, before the chemical was regulated.
Vinyl chloride is linked to a rare type of liver cancer in people who worked with high levels of the chemical on a daily basis--several decades ago. In Paulsboro, some people wonder: Are there long-term health problems for someone who has breathed vinyl chloride for just a few minutes?
"For a single exposure over a short time, the data is just not available to assess the extent of risk one has of developing any disease," Parent said.
Residents in limbo
The New Jersey Department of Health surveyed local residents about their health in the days following the Conrail accident, and many people reported eye irritation, trouble breathing and dizziness.
"A lot of times those symptoms can develop as a result of just a person being concerned, sort of developing the symptoms because somebody told them that's the kind of symptoms they should be developing. That's hard to say because it gets into a psychological thing," Parent said.
Attorney Mark Cuker has another take on the health-department survey findings: He says Ronald Morris and hundreds of his other clients are in limbo, but he says the survey is a first step—and validation.
"You're not nuts, it's not in your mind, this was enough to make a lot of people sick, in spite of what you were told at the time, or afterwards," Cuker said.
"A psychological response to a disaster, danger—a chemical release—obviously is going to cause a stress response which is initiated perhaps by fear and anxiety, but then can manifest itself as a physical reaction," said Robert Laumbach, a physician at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
"It's a real physical reaction that people might have where they get short of breath, when they feel dizzy in a stressful situation. People may hyperventilate or have other physical reactions that are part of that stress response," said Laumbach, an associate professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine.
Laumbach evaluated some of the first responders to the Paulsboro accident back in 2012 and, in some cases, was hired by attorneys who were planning to sue Conrail on behalf of their clients.
When people look back on a stressful experience, there can also be "recall bias," Laumbach said. "It's not that they are making it up, but people recall the experience in the way that they expect—or the way others around them expect," he said.
Which symptoms are caused by the chemical? Which symptoms are caused by the psychological stress response? Laumbach said that is hard to suss out.
"We don't know very much about the short-term exposure health effects that we may have seen in an incident like Paulsboro," he said.
The New Jersey Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment on this story, but has an information page on vinyl chloride.
Experts in health-risk communication say public officials have a tough job deciding what to tell residents after an incident like the Paulsboro train derailment. They work to calm people's fears without under or over estimating health concerns.
As example, the Ground Zero cleanup and recovery effort in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks is a case where officials singled a virtual "all clear" when the site still posed many health hazards for people working at the site.