Two Truths & A Lie In East Palestine, Ohio
Investigators, First Responders & Residents Have Been Sick, While EPA Admits Mistakes & Launches An Internal Probe
Two months have passed since a toxic train derailment devastated the village of East Palestine, Ohio, and residents are still searching for answers about the safety of their air, soil, and water.
The controlled burn of toxic chemicals sent a huge plume of black smoke above the area that could be seen for miles. Since then, people near the incident and surrounding areas have reported feeling sick, despite assurances that the environment is safe.
My concern has always been with this community. We all saw the big explosion and the huge plume, and we’ve continued to wonder where all those chemicals went and how it would impact the people there.
Here’s a few updates.
Truth 1: Investigators Fell Ill
Last Friday, a huge story broke. In early March, 7 CDC investigators became ill while studying the health impacts of the toxic train derailment, CNN reported.
Their symptoms included sore throats, headaches, coughing, and nausea, which are all consistent with health issues residents have described as well. When they left the area, their symptoms subsided.
The team members were representing the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, conducting a house-to-house survey in an area near the derailment to learn more about potential toxic exposures.
At least five different chemicals were carried in the train cars that derailed, according to a letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to Norfolk Southern, including vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether and isobutylene.
“It adds confirmation that the symptoms reported by East Palestine residents are real and are associated with environmental exposures from the derailment and chemical fire,” David Michaels, an epidemiologist and professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health who ran the Occupational Safety and Health Administration between 2009 and 2017, told CNN.
In a separate case in February, two EPA contractors also reported symptoms related to strong odors, CNN reported.
Truth 2: ACE Survey Shows Symptoms From Residents & First Responders
For several weeks, the Ohio Department of Health (ODH), together with federal partners, has been surveying East Palestine residents and first responders to the derailment site about health symptoms.
These surveys, called ACE (after chemical exposure) surveys, closed last Friday (March 31st) at midnight for data analysis.
The community ACE survey was taken by 534 residents. The top 5 symptoms residents reported were:
Irritation/Pain/Burning eyes: 49.8%
Of 212 respondents to the first-responder survey, the top 5 symptoms reported were:
Stuffy nose/sinus congestion: 26.4%
Runny nose: 25.0%
Increased congestion/phlegm: 21.7%
Burning nose or throat: 20.3%
The purpose of the ACE survey was to gather data and information about initial impacts from chemical exposure in the community. ODH will review the information to potentially develop additional surveys or further public health action.
I’d like to see this kind of reporting continue.
Environmental pollution exists all over the world. I’ve seen communities that have been exposed to varying levels of chemicals for prolonged periods of time.
It takes time to see the effects of toxins on people. Many of these chemicals have latency periods of 10, 20, or 30-plus years.
Sound science is the basis for all legislation and policy decisions to protect public health, but large companies can influence the scientific process and conceal their own studies to avoid or postpone regulations.
We’ve seen this dynamic play out with both the tobacco and the pharmaceutical industries for decades, and it continues to happen with chemicals that are polluting our water.
Environmental pollution is not easy to detect or prove. It’s part of why regulating industry can be so difficult.
It takes years to build a scientific case to prove the harmful effects certain chemicals have on our health. Just take asbestos. It was used to insulate homes for decades before we finally banned it.
Did The EPA Lie?
Testing near the community has shown the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink, but locals have continued to report health problems.
“Why are people getting sick if there’s nothing in the air or water?” one woman asked during a town hall meeting in February at East Palestine High School.
At a March 28 town hall meeting, an EPA official admitted that the testing devices the agency has been using for residential air testing in East Palestine are not capable of detecting all chemicals of concern, according to Status Coup News.
That’s a big deal!
One of the complications when it comes to assessing environmental impacts of toxic chemicals is that you’ll only find what you’re looking for.
One example given during the meeting was that the EPA had tested homes for butyl acrylate, which at high inhalation levels can cause headache, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. After the “emergency phase,” the agency dropped its action level down to 20 parts per billion, meaning that a house is not considered safe at that level.
But the devices used in homes were unable to detect the chemical until 100 parts per billion, which is five times the action level.
Gotta have the right tools for the job.
The EPA has also been criticized for not testing for dioxins immediately following the controlled burn, waiting until March 2, nearly a month after the incident, to announce it had instructed Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins.
In response, more than 100 organizations signed a letter to the agency on March 13 with recommendations on how testing should proceed, arguing that EPA should handle the testing itself and set up a transparent process open to public comment.
“Communities surrounding and downwind of the derailment have a right to know whether the fire resulted in elevated concentrations of dioxins,” the letter said. “The testing must be transparent and comprehensive. This would help demonstrate EPA’s commitment to comprehensively responding to this disaster, rebuilding trust with East Palestine and other impacted communities, and advancing environmental justice.”
Exposure to dioxins can cause cancer, reproductive damage, developmental problems, immune effects, skin lesions, and other health problems. It’s a chemical that’s slow to break down once it is in the environment, according to the EPA.
Beyond Plastics founder and former EPA regional administrator Judith Enck told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the agency made two major missteps: delaying the testing and putting Norfolk Southern in charge.
“I know what the EPA is capable of,” she said. “There’s no question they should have been doing this themselves, and not hand it off to the company’s contractor because there’s already deep distrust within the community. The EPA needed to recognize that.”
The EPA’s internal watchdog, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) has announced an inquiry into the agency’s response to the train derailment in East Palestine. The OIG will conduct interviews, gather data, and analyze a variety of issues, including hazardous waste disposal, air and water monitoring, soil and sediment sampling, and risk communication.
Have more information to share? Add your voice to the conversation below.
This is so sad. The DEP and other departments have got to start listening the the people. The people know better than the DEP what is happening to their bodies. I still don't trust the DEP in Maine and it has been three years.
Be it toxins or radiation, this is Fukushima level danger from carcinogenic toxins that are most certainly and persistently in the air, soil & water. Fukushima was relocated for the same reasons E. Palestine residents should be offered temp or if needed permanent relocation. Toxic exposure should not be an acceptable price to pay to live in modern society. Clearly the agencies that responded were and are insufficiently organized and/or funded to properly manage this situation and do all that is needed to protect the people of East Palestine and surrounding communities. How can we get these residents all the help they need and deserve right now if the government and Norfolk Southern won't do enough? Our system is broken and until we demand that it is fixed, we are not apt to see our government force Norfolk Southern to take the complete and immediate steps it needs to fully address this. Our government and Norfolk Southern don't deserve in any way to be off the hook - but it doesn't seem there is a way to force them to be fully accountable soon enough to help this community whose residents are in danger now. Yet, it remains that the humanitarian thing to do is to provide the affected communities with the urgent help they need which might need to include immediate relocation and safe food and water supplies. Could big nonprofits unite with philanthropists in the private sector to combine forces to help? Can our well-funded military help? Make no mistake, as we well know, industry has often counted on health issues from the toxins they produce to manifest in the future and be difficult to trace back to any particular incident such as this. And then, as in the film Dark Waters regarding the DuPont debacle with PFOA's, count on their lawyers to fight claims for them to be accountable. Government officials may also depend on the same to kick this can down the road strategy as to not fully address these types of catastrophes with the urgency they require. To the people in this community, this is Fukushima level danger from health threatening toxins that are most certainly and persistently in the air, soil and water. Whether it is radiation as in Fukushima, or toxins from this type of catastrophe, the outcome is the same – lives are endangered and it is a moral imperative to protect them in every way possible. Let's do all we can to rally the support this community that it needs and fix a broken system that has heretofore insufficiently responded to the task.