On Feb. 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Following the crash, the chemicals were released from the train in a controlled explosion, causing concern about the effect it might have on the area.
The New Republic published a piece that reported people suffered from respiratory issues and migraines as a result of the incident. Other venues like NPR and Ohio TV station WFMJ also documented potential health concerns.
A video allegedly showing toxic clouds drifting over the nearby township of Darlington, Pennsylvania, went viral across several social media platforms a few days after the derailment. We investigated whether that footage was real — that is, if it was authentic documentation of the sky after the derailment — and what we know about the clouds it showed.
Is the Video Real?
The video was posted on Reddit, TikTok, and Twitter, where it has racked up more than a million views across several accounts, as of this writing. On Feb. 12, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene posted a video about the derailment to her Twitter that included the footage.
Darlington, Pennsylvania, is located about 9 miles southeast of East Palestine. In the video, large dark clouds cover the entire sky, at several points appearing neon blue. (Some posts online have erroneously claimed the town is located in Ohio. There is a Darlington, Ohio, but so far it appears not to have been affected by the crash or chemical release.)
"That ain't no fucking storm cloud," the person taking the video says. "That's the fucking shit from East Palestine. Their controlled burn. ...I'm ready. Let's get out of here. I wish we could get the fuck out of here."
A Reddit post sharing the video claims it was filmed Feb. 10, 2023. That isn't true. A YouTube account @tuesmorninginsept Jim Kosior originally posted the footage days before. The account has recently shared multiple videos and news broadcasts about the train crash.
The account posted a video taken in Western Pennsylvania in late January. The train derailment happened near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
The footage that spread across social platforms was first uploaded to the account on Feb. 7. The title of the video said it was taken on Feb. 6 (the day of the "controlled burn" that released toxic chemicals in an effort to prevent a larger explosion.)
The YouTube account has uploaded the same video several times since, including in a larger montage titled, "Another Crime of the Century." That video was posted on Feb. 10 with music instead of a person talking as audio.
We haven't found anything that has indicated the video's content is fake or that its location was misrepresented.
We reached out to a Facebook page linked to the YouTube account to try and see if we could contact the person who apparently uploaded the videos but have not yet received a response. We'll update this post if we receive more information.
If any Snopes readers are aware of any pertinent details concerning the video, please contact us.
What Do We Actually Know About the Clouds?
At the beginning of the video, the narrator claims that the clouds are related to the crash and the chemical release. The chemicals being transported in the train included vinyl chloride and benzene, according to a list by Norfolk Southern Railway. Both are listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as hazardous air pollutants.
According to The Free Dictionary, toxic clouds are "a mass of airborne toxins, e.g., aerosolized bacterial pathogens chemicals, or fumes released by the burning of a hazardous substance."
The clouds in the video could also be storm clouds unrelated to the derailment. For example, mammatus clouds are typically associated with severe weather. They often appear when there's a storm.
It's been suggested on social media that those were the type of clouds over Darlington, shown in the footage. Here's a photograph of similar-looking storm clouds:
Dramatic stormy sky with Mammatus cloud and rural town in the Pyrenees. (Getty Images/Stock Photo)
When we reached out to experts, they didn't all agree about whether the clouds were regular storm clouds or possibly toxic clouds connected to the derailment.
Neil Donahue, a professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in an email to Snopes that he thinks the clouds in the video were there regardless of the accident and chemical burn.
"It is very hard for an event to make a cloud," Donahue wrote. "Nuclear bombs manage it. But most of the stuff in that video is water droplets. No way the train fire released that much water."
But Lazaros Oreopoulos, NASA's Climate and Radiation Lab chief, told Snopes after consulting with his colleagues, he'd probably agree with the video's assertion that the dark patches weren't storm clouds. "The horizontal size appears to be too small for the patches/plumes to be storm clouds," he wrote in an email. "Such dark clouds are usually more horizontally extensive."
Oreopoulos believed the scene in the video was probably a product of smoke rising into clouds. He said the easiest way to determine whether the clouds were toxic would be to collect samples at the ground, close to the source of the pollutant, and then perform a chemical analysis — not by doing an eye test.
Donahue also mentioned smoke rising into the clouds being a concern. He said the black smoke plume seen rising from the tanker fire, especially during the "controlled burn" on Feb. 6, could well be called a toxic cloud.
"The vinyl chloride contents of five rail cars are currently unstable and could potentially explode, causing deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes," Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's office wrote in a statement before the controlled burn occurred.
According to manufacturing company SafeRack's website, vinyl chloride is practically inextinguishable. The website states it's best to let it burn out if an operator can't stop the flow of it.
"Norfolk Southern hazardous material personnel were on-scene and coordinating with local first responders immediately following the derailment," Norfolk Southern spokesperson Conner Spielmaker wrote when asked for comment on the video's claims. "Throughout the following days, decisions were made in consultation with our professional emergency response contractors, as well as local, state, and federal agencies and other experts on the best path forward to ensure the safety of the town from a catastrophic failure of the tankers."
We reached out to more experts about this claim, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. If we hear anything more, we'll update this report.
Is Vinyl Chloride In the Air Something to Worry About?
Yes. However, the full health impacts of the derailment and chemical release are still yet to be determined.
Some social media users were comparing the 2023 ordeal to Chernobyl, the Ukrainian nuclear accident that resulted in over 200,000 people having to relocate.
Jesse Berman, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota, wrote in an email he would not compare the two incidents. While the derailment should not be taken lightly, he wrote, it is not the threat level of Chernobyl, which was one of the greatest manmade environmental disasters in history.
However, Berman said local residents do have legitimate cause to be concerned. He wrote that volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as vinyl chloride, are highly toxic compounds. Vulnerable groups can be at greater risk for exposure. In his email, Berman specifically mentioned children, older adults, and those with existing diseases.