Explainer: What to Know About the Ohio Train Derailment
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Explainer: What to Know About the Ohio Train Derailment



This infographic explains the Ohio train derailment and potential impacts of the chemicals involved

Explainer: What to Know About the Ohio Train Derailment

What started out as a seemingly commonplace train derailment near the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania in early February escalated into a serious threat to more than 4,000 people in the immediate area. Millions of people living in the vicinity of the derailment are also watching this situation closely as chemicals have made their way into the air and waterways.

Vinyl chloride , which was being transported on a number of the 150 train cars owned by Norfolk Southern, is a key cause for concern in the aftermath of the derailment. The chemical is a known carcinogen, and is dangerous when released into the environment.

In this piece, we’re providing a timeline, an explainer on the chemicals being carried by the train, the impact zone of the derailment and release of said chemicals, and the other basics you need to know.

What Was the Train Carrying?

The company that owns the train, Norfolk Southern, released a document detailing the train cars and what each carried, as well as whether or not it was damaged and/or derailed. Here are the highlights:

Car Type Load/MTY Commodity Haz Class Status of Car
Hopper Loaded Polypropylene Not in derailment pile
Hopper Loaded Polypropylene Not in derailment pile
Hopper Loaded Polyethylene lading destroyed by fire
Hopper Loaded Polyethylene lading destroyed by fire
Tank Car Empty Residue lube oil scrap pending C&P
Tank Car Loaded Vinyl chloride, stabilized 2.1 (FLAM. GAS) car did not leak/cars vent product through the PRD and ignited/vent and burn performed
Tank Car Loaded Vinyl chloride, stabilized 2.1 (FLAM. GAS) car did not leak/cars vent product through the PRD and ignited/vent and burn performed
Tank Car Loaded Vinyl chloride, stabilized 2.1 (FLAM. GAS) car did not leak/cars vent product through the PRD and ignited/vent and burn performed
Tank Car Loaded Vinyl chloride, stabilized 2.1 (FLAM. GAS) vent product through the PRD and ignited/vent and burn
Tank Car Loaded Dipropylene glycol fire impingement/no signs of tank breach
Tank Car Loaded Propylene glycol flame impingement, no tank breach found
Tank Car Loaded Propylene glycol tank breached/lost most of load
Tank Car Loaded Diethylene glycol had small leak from BOV, unknown amount of product in car
Tank Car Loaded nos (ethylene glycol mono butyl ether) COMB. LIQUID unknown status
Hopper Loaded Semolina in pile, destroyed by fire
Tank Car Loaded nos (Ethylhexyl acrylate) COMB. LIQUID Car breached on head end/amount of product still in car pending
Hopper Loaded Polyvinyl burned
Hopper Loaded Polyvinyl actively burning
Tank Car Loaded Petroleum lube oil double comp car/both breached/entire load lost
Tank Car Loaded Petroleum lube oil tank breached/lost most of load
Tank Car Loaded Petroleum lube oil flame impinged, may have had a small leak/will be determined when car is off loaded
Tank Car Loaded Petroleum lube oil flame impinged, small leak from top fittings, unknown amount left in tank
Tank Car Loaded Polypropyl glycol flame impinged, tank breached/ most of load lost
Tank Car Loaded Propylene glycol flame impinged, no signs of breach
Tank Car Loaded Diethylene glycol flame impinged, tank breached/ load lost
Tank Car Loaded Diethylene glycol flame impinged, lost unknown amount at this time from damaged BOV
Tank Car Loaded Isobutylene 2.1 (FLAM. GAS) some flame impingement/no signs of breach
Tank Car Loaded Butyl acrylates, stabilized 3 (FLAM. LIQUID) Head breach/lost entire load (spill& fire)
Tank Car Loaded Petro oil, nec flame impinged, small leak from VRV stopped, car still loaded
Tank Car Loaded Additives, fuel flame impinged, no sign of breach
Hopper Loaded Polyvinyl involved in fire
Hopper Loaded Polyvinyl involved in fire
Tank Car Loaded Vinyl chloride, stabilized 2.1 (FLAM. GAS) car did not leak/cars vent product through the PRD and ignited/vent and burn performed
Box Car Loaded Balls, CTN, MEDCL burning or has burned
Box Car Loaded Sheet steel burning or has burned
Box Car Loaded Frozen vegetable burning or has burned
Tank Car Empty Benzene 3 (FLAM. LIQUID) damaged, fire impinged/ no breach
Tank Car Empty Benzene 3 (FLAM. LIQUID) damaged, fire impinged/ no breach
Tank Car Loaded Paraffin wax flame impingement/no signs of breach
Hopper Loaded Powder flakes burned, extinguished
Hopper Loaded Powder flakes in line, upright, impinged
Hopper Loaded Hydraulic cement
Autorack Loaded Autos passender
Box car Loaded Malt liquors
Box car Loaded Malt liquors
Box car Loaded Malt liquors
Box car Loaded Malt liquors
Box car Loaded Malt liquors
Box car Loaded Malt liquors
Box car Loaded Malt liquors
Box car Loaded Malt liquors
Box car Loaded Malt liquors

Aside from dangerous chemicals, the train was carrying things like sheet steel, semolina, cement, malt liquor, and paraffin wax.

The Threat of the Chemical Substances

  • Vinyl chloride: a gas which is commonly used to make PVC plastics. It is extremely flammable and produces toxic fumes when burned. It is also carcinogenic and can cause a myriad of health issues.
  • Butyl acrylate: a liquid used for making sealants, adhesives, and paints. It can cause skin, respiratory, and eye irritation.
  • Benzene residue: benzene is a highly flammable liquid. It is used to make things like rubbers, plastics, and dyes. It evaporates extremely quickly into the air and if exposed at high levels, it can cause dizziness, unconsciousness, tremors, irregular heartbeat, among other symptoms.
  • Ethylhexyl acrylate: a liquid used to produce plastics and paint. It can cause respiratory and skin irritation. It can also produce a hazardous vapor under appropriate heat.
  • Ethylene glycol monobutyl: a liquid that is primarily used as a solvent for inks and paints, as well as dry cleaning solutions. It is acutely toxic and can inflict serious or permanent injury. Vapors from the liquid can irritate the nose and eyes, and, if ingested, can cause vomiting and headaches.
  • Combustible liquids

According to the CDC, many of these substances are frequently transported across the U.S.; benzene , for example, ranks in the top 20 chemicals by production volume in the country.

The Timeline

Friday, February 3rd: The train, which was heading from Madison, Illinois to Conway, Pennsylvania, was carrying various products from frozen vegetables to industrial chemicals. Near East Palestine, Ohio, just before the Pennsylvania border, 38 of the train’s 150 train cars derailed and subsequent fires caused damages to another 12. Additionally, 11 of the derailed train cars carried hazardous material, the most dangerous being vinyl chloride.

The derailment caused a large fire and ominous plumes of smoke over East Palestine, but there were no fatalities or injuries. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the cause of the derailment is still under investigation.

Saturday, February 4th: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) crews began running air pollution and water runoff tests. They detected contaminated water in two streams, Sulphur Run and Leslie Run.

Sunday, February 5th: The EPA and Norfolk Southern’s contractors continued testing, and recovery efforts were underway at the contaminated water sites.

Monday, February 6th: Responders conducted a controlled burn of toxic materials to destroy the remaining vinyl chloride, which posed a threat of explosion and subsequent toxic fumes and shrapnel. Because of this the standing evacuation order was extended to include a larger area. From the Ohio governor’s announcement :

“The controlled release process involves the burning of the rail cars’ chemicals, which will release fumes into the air that can be deadly if inhaled. Based on current weather patterns and the expected flow of the smoke and fumes, anyone who remains in the red affected area is facing grave danger of death.” – Mike DeWine

Wednesday, February 8th: Just days later, the governor announced that it was safe for residents to return home as air quality tests were coming back clean.

In the last week: Reports have been coming in of people feeling symptoms related to the release of toxic chemicals. Additionally, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, reported that 3,500 fish were found dead in Ohio waterways as a direct result of the spill from the train derailment.

The EPA, however, has screened the air quality inside more than 400 homes, finding levels to be safe. A statement from the regional director of the EPA said that: “Since the fire went out on February 8, EPA air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment.”

On Wednesday, the 15th, Norfolk Southern representatives pulled out of a meeting with town officials, causing outrage among residents. The following day, EPA administrator, Michael Regan, visited East Palestine to quell the anger and fears, but residents are still unhappy and skeptical of the testing.

The largest remaining issue is that water quality connected to the Ohio River, which is still being monitored. The governor has recommended only drinking bottled water.

The Overall Impacts

The town of East Palestine is home to just over 4,000 people and the crash happened dangerously close to the city of Pittsburgh, PA. Contamination in the water supply have led to the deaths of thousands of fish and people are now complaining of reactions to the chemical leakage.

Norfolk Southern has set up an Assistance Center and donated over $1 million to help people cover costs of evacuation, as well as conducting extensive testing of air and water quality. The governor is now calling for tighter regulations on rail companies and a number of lawsuits have been filed against Norfolk Southern.

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Charted: The Global Plastic Waste Trade

Which countries are responsible for exporting the world’s plastic waste? This graphic shows the flow of global plastic waste through exports and imports.



shareable plastic waste trade

Charting the Movement of Global Plastic Waste

Every year, nations worldwide produce around 350 million metric tons of plastic waste. This is equivalent to over 10 million fully loaded garbage trucks.

Most of this plastic waste is either incinerated or sent to landfills, thus eventually polluting our air, land, and oceans . Only a fraction of this waste is recycled, and contrary to popular belief, just 2% is traded internationally.

This graphic by Our World in Data uses data from OECD and UN Comtrade to reveal just how much plastic waste is traded across borders, and which countries are estimated to export and import the most of it.

Why Trade Waste?

Though most plastic waste is managed and recycled within countries, exporting spare waste helps manage a part of their plastic emissions more cheaply and reduces pressure on local recycling facilities and landfills.

Importing plastics, on the other hand, comes with certain financial benefits too. Repurposing recycled plastics into goods is a far cheaper option for industries that would otherwise rely on buying newly manufactured expensive plastics. And many countries differ when it comes to their specific plastic recycling capabilities and needs, so while they might export some plastic waste, they also import others that are useful.

Research has even found that higher plastic waste imports have positively impacted the economic growth of many low-income countries, in the right circumstances.

However, when countries export unusable and non-recyclable contaminated plastics, these same low-income nations may see the end-of-life ecosystem costs outweigh any financial benefits.

The World’s Biggest Plastic Importers and Exporters

With its reported plastic waste exports nearing four million metric tons, Europe exports nearly 80% of the world’s traded plastic waste. However, as most is reportedly exported to other European nations, it is also the largest importing region.

Here are the world’s top plastic waste exporters in 2020 according to UN Comtrade data:

Rank Country Exported Plastic Waste (2020)
1 Germany 853,860,858 kg
2 Japan 820,742,495 kg
3 USA 624,511,072 kg
4 United Kingdom 560,986,540 kg
5 Netherlands 413,233,255 kg
6 Belgium 346,218,522 kg
7 France 333,748,686 kg
8 Italy 217,167,070 kg
9 Slovenia 181,914,979 kg
10 Austria 179,322,638 kg
11 Poland 155,891,362 kg
12 Canada 150,206,837 kg
13 China, Hong Kong SAR 112,080,263 kg
14 Sweden 111,514,132 kg
15 Australia 100,204,277 kg
16 Czechia 89,082,929 kg
17 Spain 86,854,314 kg
18 Thailand 85,385,733 kg
19 Switzerland 83,005,449 kg
20 Philippines 75,168,153 kg
21 Nigeria 74,639,859 kg
22 Norway 71,372,606 kg
23 Denmark 55,662,774 kg
24 Greece 53,393,857 kg
25 Portugal 53,003,217 kg
26 China 50,478,220 kg
27 Ireland 48,751,674 kg
28 Indonesia 43,724,756 kg
29 Other Asia, nes 43,457,341 kg
30 Viet Nam 37,175,812 kg
31 Singapore 34,704,348 kg
32 Croatia 32,316,215 kg
33 Romania 29,700,995 kg
34 Lithuania 28,983,059 kg
35 Republic of Korea 28,904,472 kg
36 Slovakia 27,652,928 kg
37 Russian Federation 25,644,305 kg
38 Mexico 24,702,933 kg
39 Saudi Arabia 23,481,323 kg
40 New Zealand 22,480,990 kg
41 Israel 21,643,157 kg
42 Malaysia 19,027,615 kg
43 Latvia 17,866,739 kg
44 Estonia 16,294,944 kg
45 Finland 15,249,438 kg
46 Dominican Republic 14,719,180 kg
47 Turkey 14,523,187 kg
48 United Republic of Tanzania 14,479,176 kg
49 Belarus 13,835,708 kg
50 Nicaragua 11,514,077 kg
51 Luxembourg 10,803,768 kg
52 Iceland 10,672,493 kg
53 Cyprus 9,892,697 kg
54 Chile 9,794,134 kg
55 Bulgaria 9,617,547 kg
56 Jamaica 9,017,513 kg
57 Costa Rica 8,825,189 kg
58 Serbia 7,760,215 kg
59 El Salvador 7,419,495 kg
60 Myanmar 7,249,896 kg
61 Cambodia 6,951,533 kg
62 Lebanon 6,415,630 kg
63 Bosnia Herzegovina 6,007,289 kg
64 Kazakhstan 5,653,113 kg
65 Guatemala 5,379,563 kg
66 Ethiopia 4,713,442 kg
67 Senegal 4,642,680 kg
68 Uganda 4,418,835 kg
69 Mauritania 4,295,751 kg
70 Pakistan 4,290,080 kg
71 Kenya 3,840,457 kg
72 India 3,819,791 kg
73 Colombia 3,804,346 kg
74 United Arab Emirates 3,772,818 kg
75 Ecuador 3,483,956 kg
76 North Macedonia 3,477,001 kg
77 Panama 3,317,193 kg
78 Lao People's Democratic Republic 3,124,150 kg
79 Tajikistan 3,062,960 kg
80 Morocco 3,026,647 kg
81 Kuwait 2,407,677 kg
82 Namibia 2,353,190 kg
83 Brazil 2,347,776 kg
84 Ukraine 2,278,326 kg
85 Hungary 2,249,520 kg
86 South Africa 2,079,115 kg
87 Barbados 1,859,440 kg
88 Rwanda 1,805,214 kg
89 Kyrgyzstan 1,775,603 kg
90 Oman 1,721,228 kg
91 Zambia 1,699,478 kg
92 Mauritius 1,517,428 kg
93 Mozambique 1,470,146 kg
94 Egypt 1,348,091 kg
95 Malta 1,282,539 kg
96 Burkina Faso 1,225,000 kg
97 Uruguay 1,114,915 kg
98 Paraguay 1,003,800 kg
99 Bolivia (Plurinational State of) 740,180 kg
100 Trinidad and Tobago 658,955 kg
101 Eswatini 649,645 kg
102 Georgia 643,683 kg
103 French Polynesia 577,460 kg
104 Sri Lanka 483,401 kg
105 Botswana 482,755 kg
106 Jordan 440,681 kg
107 Belize 368,658 kg
108 Togo 366,264 kg
109 China, Macao SAR 350,362 kg
110 Azerbaijan 300,000 kg
111 Peru 250,030 kg
112 Zimbabwe 200,001 kg
113 Benin 190,360 kg
114 Uzbekistan 188,430 kg
115 Montenegro 171,132 kg
116 Republic of Moldova 169,735 kg
117 Fiji 155,396 kg
118 Burundi 111,370 kg
119 Congo 94,000 kg
120 Grenada 49,504 kg
121 Brunei Darussalam 39,660 kg
122 Malawi 25,709 kg
123 Cayman Isds 1,435 kg
124 Lesotho 133 kg
125 Guyana 100 kg
126 Democratic Republic of the Congo 33 kg
127 Armenia 1 kg

Due to political reasons, UN Comtrade includes Taiwan data under “Other Asia, not elsewhere specified.”

Germany , which is the world’s largest exporter of plastic scraps and waste at 854 million kilograms , relies primarily on the Netherlands, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Türkiye, and Malaysia to manage this plastic waste.

Asia’s largest plastic exports are from Japan , which trades primarily with other Asian countries including Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea. In 2020, Japan was the world’s second-largest plastic waste exporter with 821 million kilograms shipped.

Third on this list is the United States . The country is estimated to have exported more than 600 million kilograms of plastic waste in 2020, and while a majority was traded with Canada, a portion also went to Mexico, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Hong Kong, and Indonesia.

And on the receiving end, Malaysia and Türkiye have become the world’s largest plastic waste importers, primarily from within their respective regions:

Rank Country Imported Plastic Waste (2020)
1 Malaysia 715,274,628 kg
2 Türkiye 619,287,422 kg
3 Germany 567,239,848 kg
4 Viet Nam 440,706,678 kg
5 Netherlands 417,312,448 kg
6 USA 243,981,665 kg
7 Indonesia 233,926,526 kg
8 Other Asia, nes 230,934,455 kg
9 Poland 195,332,771 kg
10 Italy 192,114,936 kg
11 China, Hong Kong SAR 186,629,825 kg
12 Belgium 185,232,530 kg
13 Spain 182,033,579 kg
14 Austria 170,175,178 kg
15 Canada 167,123,643 kg
16 China 150,033,032 kg
17 United Kingdom 144,482,263 kg
18 Thailand 130,341,730 kg
19 France 128,752,962 kg
20 Slovenia 102,353,864 kg
21 Rep. of Korea 97,893,699 kg
22 India 89,145,346 kg
23 Czechia 79,601,672 kg
24 Mexico 68,782,729 kg
25 Latvia 68,107,317 kg
26 Lithuania 66,374,140 kg
27 Bulgaria 63,823,882 kg
28 Switzerland 61,347,327 kg
29 Ireland 54,078,049 kg
30 Romania 47,989,380 kg
31 Pakistan 45,750,791 kg
32 Serbia 37,292,746 kg
33 Denmark 33,324,445 kg
34 Russian Federation 31,817,270 kg
35 Ukraine 30,817,214 kg
36 Sweden 30,007,480 kg
37 Slovakia 29,347,402 kg
38 Uzbekistan 27,090,552 kg
39 Greece 22,635,566 kg
40 Bosnia Herzegovina 21,829,094 kg
41 Hungary 21,118,259 kg
42 Portugal 19,953,840 kg
43 Honduras 18,408,892 kg
44 Luxembourg 16,654,349 kg
45 Australia 13,731,068 kg
46 Bangladesh 13,344,977 kg
47 Myanmar 13,084,157 kg
48 Croatia 13,046,429 kg
49 Brazil 12,040,500 kg
50 Philippines 10,964,992 kg
51 Ecuador 10,012,297 kg
52 El Salvador 9,934,333 kg
53 Nigeria 8,975,285 kg
54 South Africa 8,290,544 kg
55 United Arab Emirates 8,194,024 kg
56 Yemen 8,122,620 kg
57 Kenya 8,042,308 kg
58 Finland 7,927,225 kg
59 Peru 7,830,729 kg
60 Singapore 7,812,335 kg
61 Saudi Arabia 7,772,952 kg
62 Norway 7,465,358 kg
63 Oman 7,337,017 kg
64 Morocco 6,354,623 kg
65 Israel 5,435,111 kg
66 Estonia 5,112,549 kg
67 Azerbaijan 5,059,007 kg
68 New Zealand 4,986,243 kg
69 Lao People's Dem. Rep. 4,896,151 kg
70 Ghana 4,525,868 kg
71 Egypt 4,265,787 kg
72 Angola 3,848,302 kg
73 Guatemala 3,786,378 kg
74 Cyprus 3,699,497 kg
75 Belarus 3,363,907 kg
76 Japan 3,045,561 kg
77 Mozambique 2,828,608 kg
78 United Rep. of Tanzania 2,801,914 kg
79 Costa Rica 2,584,350 kg
80 Nicaragua 2,400,367 kg
81 Paraguay 2,128,994 kg
82 Colombia 2,037,539 kg
83 South Sudan 1,709,764 kg
84 Uganda 1,559,662 kg
85 Zimbabwe 1,511,063 kg
86 Sri Lanka 1,502,126 kg
87 Senegal 1,362,546 kg
88 North Macedonia 1,126,010 kg
89 Côte d'Ivoire 939,404 kg
90 Dominican Rep. 768,374 kg
91 Afghanistan 754,746 kg
92 Kazakhstan 717,188 kg
93 Togo 698,210 kg
94 Cuba 680,609 kg
95 Iraq 627,911 kg
96 Lebanon 583,037 kg
97 Montenegro 571,380 kg
98 Uruguay 505,549 kg
99 Bahrain 499,397 kg
100 Ethiopia 493,057 kg
101 Panama 454,236 kg
102 Djibouti 447,649 kg
103 Libya 445,997 kg
104 Nepal 430,028 kg
105 Tajikistan 405,577 kg
106 Kyrgyzstan 389,064 kg
107 Georgia 379,580 kg
108 Chad 375,055 kg
109 Areas, nes 366,189 kg
110 Chile 348,504 kg
111 Qatar 289,691 kg
112 Guinea 247,240 kg
113 Venezuela 239,537 kg
114 Zambia 233,551 kg
115 Burkina Faso 193,232 kg
116 Sudan 188,732 kg
117 Mauritius 176,928 kg
118 Benin 168,956 kg
119 Malta 157,233 kg
120 Jamaica 150,529 kg
121 Tunisia 149,199 kg
122 Democratic Republic of the Congo 147,105 kg
123 Cambodia 143,448 kg
124 Cameroon 137,262 kg
125 Gabon 136,495 kg
126 Iran 129,535 kg
127 Kuwait 104,493 kg
128 Algeria 86,902 kg
129 Brunei Darussalam 83,517 kg
130 Albania 83,138 kg
131 Rwanda 82,091 kg
132 Armenia 71,820 kg
133 Democratic People's Republic of Korea 66,000 kg
134 Bhutan 52,653 kg
135 Cayman Isds 52,513 kg
136 Equatorial Guinea 44,051 kg
137 Bolivia (Plurinational State of) 42,858 kg
138 Argentina 38,707 kg
139 Namibia 33,211 kg
140 Trinidad and Tobago 31,811 kg
141 Jordan 28,770 kg
142 Suriname 22,976 kg
143 Madagascar 22,672 kg
144 Syria 22,100 kg
145 Andorra 20,387 kg
146 Mali 20,200 kg
147 Saint Helena 19,587 kg
148 Mongolia 19,111 kg
149 Bermuda 18,814 kg
150 Maldives 18,130 kg
151 Botswana 16,041 kg
152 Timor-Leste 12,459 kg
153 Saint Lucia 10,739 kg
154 Mauritania 10,300 kg
155 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 8,281 kg
156 Haiti 7,769 kg
157 Aruba 5,833 kg
158 Malawi 5,716 kg
159 Vanuatu 5,000 kg
160 Belize 4,294 kg
161 Eswatini 3,730 kg
162 Turks and Caicos Isds 3,453 kg
163 Fiji 3,212 kg
164 Curaçao 1,485 kg
165 Bahamas 1,361 kg
166 Faeroe Isds 1,062 kg
167 Guyana 1,004 kg
168 Lesotho 547 kg
169 Bonaire 392 kg
170 Gibraltar 380 kg
171 Papua New Guinea 191 kg
172 Guam 140 kg
173 Cabo Verde 100 kg
174 New Caledonia 73 kg
175 Liberia 50 kg
176 Bunkers 50 kg
177 Cocos Isds 44 kg
178 Br. Virgin Isds 35 kg
179 Republic of Moldova 31 kg
180 Saint Pierre and Miquelon 5 kg
181 Iceland 3 kg
182 Seychelles 2 kg
183 Sierra Leone 1 kg

How the Plastic Waste Trade is Changing

Up until 2017, China was one of the world’s largest plastic waste importers, which it used for its manufacturing industries. In 2018, it imposed import bans on 24 types of recyclable waste, and their plastic waste imports dropped by over 95% within a year.

In 2019, 187 nations signed an international treaty called the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. Aimed at addressing the gaps in plastic waste disposal, this treaty restricts participating nations from trading plastic scraps internationally, unless it lacks sufficient recycling or disposal capacity.

And over the last decade, the global plastic trade has indeed declined tremendously. But millions of tons of plastic are still being shipped (and mismanaged).

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