New Analysis and Interactive Map Illustrate Dangers of Freight Trains Carrying Toxic Chemicals

freight train

-For Immediate Release-
Aug. 8, 2013

Contact: Brian Gumm,, 202-683-4812

New Analysis and Interactive Map Illustrate
Dangers of Freight Trains Carrying Toxic Chemicals

WASHINGTON, Aug. 8, 2013—In response to the recent Lawtell, Louisiana, rail accident, the Center for Effective Government today released an analysis and a new interactive map that displays freight train derailments and other incidents involving toxic chemicals.

On Aug. 4, a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed about 60 miles from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, forcing the evacuation of 100 homes in the area. At least one person was injured, and one of the damaged rail cars leaked sodium hydroxide, a highly caustic chemical that can cause burns, lung damage, and can lead to death if inhaled or ingested in sufficient quantities. The train was also carrying toxic and highly flammable vinyl chloride, though the accident did not release the substance into the surrounding area.

"Public officials, first responders, and citizens have a right to know when toxic chemicals are moving through their communities, whether by rail, truck, or other means," said Katherine McFate, President and CEO of the Center for Effective Government. "Without such information, they won't be able to effectively respond to accidents."

McFate continued, "Our analysis of Emergency Response Notification System (ERNS) data shows that in 2012 (the latest year for which data is available), approximately 196 accidents – including 63 involving toxic chemicals – caused four deaths and two injuries."

The accidents involved substances including crude oil, toluene, and styrene, which can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, and the upper respiratory tract, among other health problems. "The good news is that the number of derailments that involved toxins has fallen significantly over the last decade," McFate said.

Incidents by Year

The Center for Effective Government analysis of the ERNS data showed the following:

  • Over the past 21 years, the highest number of rail accidents involving toxic substances (257) in 1992. Since then, the number of accidents has generally declined. Since 2003, fewer than a hundred accidents have occurred each year.

  • One of the worst accidents occurred in 2000 when a railcar carrying sodium dithionite began leaking and smoking in Oshkosh, WI. Roughly 800 people had to be evacuated, and several people were hospitalized. Since 2003, there have been only four incidents that resulted in fatalities (six). None of those episodes resulted in evacuations.

Incidents by Top States

  • In the last ten years, the 10 states with the highest number of accidents involving toxic chemicals were: Texas (76), California (50), Illinois (49), Louisiana (43), Nebraska (34), Tennessee (33), Alabama (32), Pennsylvania (28), Virginia (28), and Missouri (27).

  • Of those incidents, the most serious occurred in Illinois. An incident in Du Quoin, IL, involving a train filled with sulfuric acid, caused six injuries and required the evacuation of a reported 4,000 people.

"We created this interactive map tool to help citizens and members of the media explore the history of rail accidents involving toxins around the country. This information is critical to effective emergency planning and developing alternate routes so that the most hazardous chemicals aren't transported near our homes, schools, and small businesses. We hope it will also encourage citizens to press for safer chemical alternatives," McFate said.

View Larger Map

The Center for Effective Government's new map is available online at

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