In the days after a fiery February train derailment that likely poisoned the environment in East Palestine, Ohio with a range of highly toxic chemicals, Amanda Kenner and her family experienced the burning eyes, nose, throat and other symptoms widely reported among the population in the small town near the Pennsylvania border.
In the months since, as the media and world have largely moved, their lives have not improved much. Kenner’s four-year-old son, who had asthma before the wreck, saw his symptoms become uncontrollable, forcing the doctor to change his medication, Kenner said. She and her eight-year-old son developed asthma, and they all have experienced nausea, diarrhea and headaches that they attribute to chemical exposure.
State and federal officials have told the Kenners the water, air and soil is safe, and their health issues have other sources. But the family, which lives several miles south of the accident site, is skeptical and still “relies on the kindness of strangers” who donate bottled water because they suspect their well is contaminated.
“It’s an ongoing nightmare,” Kenner said during a Thursday symposium to mark six months since the wreck and spill.
The Kenners are representative of the plight for many in the East Palestine region who say they still suffer symptoms stemming from chemical exposure. Independent university researchers have found 80% of residents they surveyed say new symptoms experienced since the wreck – headaches, rash, coughs, eye irritation, diarrhea – are still present, and about 40% said they suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
Residents there say state and federal officials have downplayed residents’ concerns and potential health threats, and sometimes offer contradicting information. That has generated deep mistrust, and residents say there’s a sense of being left on their own.
“It feels like an apocalyptic movie … and we are living in it,” said East Palestine resident Misti Allison. The town feels like it was a “soundbite” and there is dismay over the perception that the situation is resolved, she said.
“[People] think it happened, it’s terrible, but it’s done with. But that’s not true,” Allison added.
About 50 out of 141 cars on the Norfolk Southern train derailed and exploded in a towering fireball over the town of 4,700 at the edge of the Appalachian hills. The fire burned near tankers carrying vinyl chloride, and, two days later, officials, fearing a “major explosion”, conducted a controlled burn of vinyl chloride as a prevention measure. The state and federal government’s response was largely viewed as inadequate, and it became the subject of national scrutiny and criticism.
Among other issues, the “controlled burn” likely released dioxin, PAHs and other chemicals that present long-term health threats. The EPA has said the level of dioxins in and around the town is safe, but a Guardian analysis by experts in February found the soil contains dioxin levels hundreds of times greater than the exposure threshold above which Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists in 2010 found poses cancer risks.
The EPA has done some testing for dioxin in the area’s soil and has said it did not find elevated results. But that has been contradicted by independent research that found levels thousands of times above background levels.
The EPA has not checked residents for the chemicals, but independent researchers who tested blood samples say results should be back soon. A new program is also being developed by university researchers to check residents for butyl acrylate and vinyl chloride, and provide them with wristbands that can measure a range of toxic chemicals in the environment.
The findings will “direct the next steps we’re taking,” said University of Kentucky researcher Erin Hayes, who has helped organize the program.
Meanwhile, Purdue University researcher Andrew Welton presented evidence that the handheld devices Norfolk Southern’s contractors used to check homes for chemicals were incapable of finding them. His evidence included Norfolk Southern test results that showed no chemical detections in a home where independent testing found high levels. Even though Norfolk Southern’s contractors said they did not find chemicals, they noted they had to leave the home because of the overpowering chemical odor.
“The testing done on those buildings wasn’t designed to find the contamination that could cause the illnesses,” Welton said.
The EPA recently proposed a building decontamination program, but it does not include HVAC cleaning, indoor air testing and other measures, Welton said. He called on the agency to develop a more robust, systematic approach.
Residents who spoke at Thursday’s symposium say legitimate indoor testing is a priority, and officials’ refusal to do it is partly behind the mistrust. So is their denial that health issues stem from the wreck. Those ailments experienced by her family and others in the area flare when there is digging around the derailment site, Kenner said.
Residents say the officials have told them rashes, headaches and vertigo are not from chemical exposures, but are “stress symptoms”.
“Our health has been diminished,” Allison said “We’ve been told the soil is fine, the air is fine, the water is fine, but when you do your own research … it’s absolutely terrifying.”
The definition of “safe” is very subjective, Kenner noted. Officials have been using federal chemical exposure standards developed for worker safety, which is calculated off of eight hours of exposure for a man. But that does not mean the 24 hour exposures for elderly people, children and immunocompromised people are safe, Kenner added.
In a vacuum of reliable official information and a climate of distrust, concerned residents have been organizing and supporting one another, and have created an advocacy group called the East Palestine Unity Council.
“Nobody has reached out to me, nobody is making sure I’m OK,” said East Palestine resident Zsuzsa Gyenes, except neighbors and those who are a part of the council. At the same time, differences in opinion among residents over whether the town is safe have created divisions, which is “heartbreaking”, Gyenes added.
The federal government has taken few meaningful steps to avoid another catastrophe, and East Palestine residents offered advice for the next city that faces a similar catastrophe. “You need to be your own advocate,” Allison said.
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/aug/04/ohio-train-derailment-east-palestine-health-chemical-symptom ‘It feels like an apocalyptic movie’: life in East Palestine six months after toxic train crash | Ohio