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Train carrying ethanol derailed in Minnesota: Why is it dangerous to health?

A train carrying ethanol and corn syrup derailed and caught fire in Minnesota early Thursday and area residents were ordered to evacuate, authorities said.

The BNSF train derailed in the town of Raymond, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) west of Minneapolis, around 1 a.m., according to a statement from Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Tollefson.

The country has increasingly focused on rail safety after last month’s Norfolk Southern derailment prompted evacuations in East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border.

What is ethanol?

Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol, is a liquid used to produce alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine, or brandy. Due to its simple way of dissolving with water, it is also used for personal care, beauty, paints, among others.

Its manufacture is vegetable, and in the case of its use for food, it works to distribute the color of food, as well as enhance the flavor of extracts, according to the Chemical Safety Facts organization.

Some of the uses of ethanol are:

  • Alcoholic beverages: According to the Autonomous University of the State of Hidalgo, ethyl alcohol is made by reacting ethane with steam. 5 percent of this is converted to ethanol gas with each pass through the steam process, so it is run many times to achieve a 95 percent conversion of ethene to ethanol. The ethanol gases are then cooled to form liquid ethyl alcohol.
  • Personal care products: It is a common ingredient in cosmetics and beauty products, which is used to clean the skin and so that the ingredients of lotions do not separate. Also works in hairsprays.
  • Home’s products: It is a dissolving agent, which works for paints and varnishes. It is also a preservative that works to eliminate dangerous organisms from products used to clean the house.
  • food additives: It is used in foods that contain alcohol, such as cakes or sweets. It also works to enhance the flavor of products such as vanilla.
  • Fuel: It is mixed with gasoline and makes up 10 percent of the compound that drives vehicles in the United States.

Ethanol ‘concerns’ Minnesota after train derailment

Residents of Raymond, Minnesota, population about 5,000, remain concerned about the lingering health effects after authorities decided to release and burn toxic chemicals to prevent tank car explosion. State and federal officials maintain that no harmful levels of toxic chemicals have been found in the air or water there, but residents are concerned.

Major freight railroads have said they plan to add about 1,000 more track detectors across the country to help detect equipment problems, but federal regulators and members of Congress have proposed additional reforms to prevent future derailments.

BNSF said in a statement that 22 carriages derailed and four caught fire, but that no injuries reported. It was not immediately clear how many derailed cars were carrying ethanol.

“The main road is blocked and there is no availability on the estimated time to reopen the line”, according to the statement from BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent. “The cause of the incident is under investigation.”

The houses in a perimeter of 800 meters (half a mile) around the site were evacuated, according to Tollefson, and the residents were taken to a shelter in nearby Prinsburg.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN what some 14 wagons transported hazardous materials. BNSF said the only hazardous material on board was ethanol.

Governor Tim Walz planned to visit the site along with state emergency management officials.

The Federal Railroad Administration, the Pipeline Safety and Hazardous Materials Administration, and the National Transportation Safety Board will review the derailment claim.

It does not seem likely that this BNSF train would have been covered by the additional safety regulations for trains of high-risk flammable materials because those rules only apply when a train has a block of 20 flammable liquid cars or more than 35 flammable liquid cars in total. Those safety rules were developed after a series of crude oil and ethanol derailments a decade ago.

With information from AP.

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