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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Hanna Webster And Anya Litvak

Health concerns related to the East Palestine train derailment: What to know

Following the derailment of about 50 train cars in East Palestine, Ohio, more than a week ago and the subsequent controlled release of vinyl chloride into the air to prevent an explosion, residents as far away as Pittsburgh are wondering about potential health impacts.

Elected officials are on alert, too: Senators from Pennsylvania and Ohio released a joint statement on Wednesday calling for additional testing and for the freight train’s owner, Norfolk Southern Railway, to be held accountable. It was sent to Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan, and followed a letter to Norfolk Southern from Gov. Josh Shapiro the day prior.

“Given the rural nature of this community, many residents rely on private drinking water wells that are not connected to a public water supply system, and therefore may need additional testing from EPA to ensure the safety of their drinking water sources,” the senators wrote in their statement. “We are deeply concerned for the safety of the community in the impacted area.”

What do we know about the chemicals being carried?

Beyond the vinyl chloride, the EPA identified additional chemicals — isobutylene, butyl acrylates, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether and ethylhexyl acrylate — present at the scene and provided more information about what is being monitored and tested.

The EPA report outlining the contents of the train cars and status of certain chemicals states that a tank car loaded with ethylhexyl acrylate breached, and that the amount of the chemical still in the car is pending. One tank car of butyl acrylate was lost to spillage and fire. The EPA also identified two empty benzene tank cars, indicating no breach.

It’s a good sign that no benzene was detected in the air, said Eric Beckman, co-director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation and a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. Benzene is a carcinogen.

The chemicals differ a lot in their volatility, he said, which is a measure of how quickly chemicals evaporate, affecting where they end up.

Mr. Beckman said butyl acrylate has a sharp and irritating chemical smell. If a person is exposed, it might cause red or itchy eyes. Acrylates are raw materials often used to make adhesives.

A tank car containing diethylene glycol was reported as breached and the load lost. Diethylene glycol dissolves easily into water but is not very toxic to humans, said Mr. Beckman. He speculated that this could be the culprit for dead fish found at various streams in East Palestine.

Mr. Beckman has no involvement in the situation and thus his comments are based on his own expertise working with these chemicals.

The added element of fire means that it’s not clear what exactly people were exposed to or in what amounts, which adds difficulty to testing and monitoring efforts.

“This is truly an uncontrolled chemical reaction,” Mr. Beckman said. “The range of things you can create is really vast … there are a lot of unknowns here.”

Is the air clean?

Air quality is continually being monitored by EPA-led and private sensors for many different chemicals.

Cary Secrest, a retired air inspector with the EPA, said the monitoring regimen — where the monitors were placed and what chemicals they were screening for — appeared appropriate based on the situation.

“It seems like they did gather a lot of data,” he said.

The readings, over the course of days, before and after the controlled burn, did not detect the feared phosgene gas, which can form when vinyl chloride is burned. No other air pollutants were elevated except fine particulates.

Although these chemicals were not detected during air testing, it doesn’t mean people didn’t smell them. Some substances can be detected with a nose at concentrations many times lower than what would be considered harmful.

For example, butyl acrylate has an odor threshold of .035 parts per million. But even the slightest, short-term health impacts aren’t seen until the concentration of the compound reaches 8.3 ppm. Serious health consequences aren’t expected until it reaches 53 ppm over the course of eight hours.

What about air quality in the Pittsburgh area?

No contaminants appear to have traveled from the derailment site to Allegheny County. Per a Feb. 16 statement from the Allegheny County Health Department, which noted it has been monitoring since Feb. 3, “our monitors and analysts reviewing the county’s air quality data have not seen any air quality changes that can be attributed to the derailment.”

Have the chemicals contaminated water and soil?

While an outside party determined Wednesday municipal water is safe to drink, concerns have circulated about fish deaths.

An estimated 3,500 fish have died after being exposed to a chemical spill in Leslie Run, Bull Creek and part of the North Fork of Beaver Creek, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said in an email. Wildlife officers expect about 7½ miles of stream to be affected by the spill, and said most of the fish that died were small, such as darters, minnows, suckers and sculpin.

Surface water, groundwater and drinking water are being repeatedly monitored by multiple organizations on the ground, including consulting company AECOM, the Ohio EPA and the Columbiana County Health Department.

Arcadis US Inc., a third-party company representing Norfolk Southern Railway, released a preliminary remediation report on Friday outlining its plan for future monitoring and testing. Arcadis has already rerouted surface water to reduce chemical contamination to certain waterways, and conducted soil, air and surface water testing as well as residential well water testing.

The report points out multiple sampling points, including near Sulfur Run, Leslie Run and the North Fork of Little Beaver Creek, noting that “sampling activities have continued on a daily basis.” Arcadis plans to conduct more soil testing depending on results of surface soil contamination levels, and to install multiple monitoring stations near groundwater wells for relevant chemicals.

Surface water sampling from the Ohio EPA completed Feb. 10 found low levels of two contaminants — butyl acrylate and ethyl hexyl acrylate — in Leslie Run that are expected to dissolve quickly. The state EPA also found very low levels of ethyl hexyl acrylate in North Fork Little Beaver Creek. No presence of vinyl chloride was detected.

Surface water and liquid treatment are ongoing.

How long will environmental testing continue?

Beaver County Commissioner Dan Camp, who was among a group of county and state officials to meet with Gov. Josh Shapiro on Tuesday, said the governor promised that environmental monitoring would continue.

“This could take up to six months to really see the actual results of water quality,” Mr. Camp said, in the event that chemicals that wafted from Ohio settled onto soil and would work their way through to groundwater.

“What we’re being told is things like this will take some time,” he said of his conversations with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, whose acting secretary Rich Negrin was also at the table on Tuesday.

“There are probably impacts outside the 1-mile radius,” he said.

Is the drinking water safe?

An AECOM preliminary report released Monday that analyzed three different drinking water samples found no evidence of contamination that would put residents at risk. The level of vinyl chloride in the samples was 0.2 parts per billion. Federal limits denote 2 ppb as the threshold for intervention to reduce vinyl chloride levels. A health risk assessment from the Minnesota Health Department, which has dealt with vinyl chloride in drinking water, said that “a person drinking water at or below the guidance value (of 0.2 ppb) would have little or no risk of health effects.”

A second sample in the AECOM report saw levels of dibromochloromethane, chloroform and bromodichloromethane slightly above the reporting limit of 0.50 ppb. None exceeded 1 ppb. After additional testing, the Ohio EPA reported Wednesday that municipal water was safe to drink and no contaminants were detected.

Private wells in East Palestine are also being tested for contaminants, organized by the Columbiana Health Department in collaboration with AECOM and the Ohio EPA. Laura Fauss, a public information officer for the Health Department said that, as of Tuesday, it had tested 12 private wells, one monitoring well and additional water sources. It is still awaiting results.

Eric Beckman “strongly recommended” that anyone getting their drinking water from a well get it tested. “This is the first place problems would show up,” he said.

Ms. Fauss noted a long list of chemicals being tested in wells and that households have an option to receive repeated testing. Officers who come by to test are bringing bottled water. AECOM employees accompany them and conduct independent testing that gets sent to a separate lab.

“This could take up to six months to really see the actual results of water quality” in the event that chemicals that wafted from Ohio settled onto soil and worked their way through to groundwater, said Beaver County Commissioner Dan Camp, who was among a group of county and state officials to meet with Gov. Josh Shapiro on Tuesday.

“There are probably impacts outside the 1 mile radius,” he said.

What should people do if they feel sick?

People nearby the derailment site are reporting symptoms such as a sore throat, headache, sinus problems and confusion. Toxicologists are available to answer questions and for residents to report odors, fumes or other health concerns at 234-542-6474.

The Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency also has a hotline for people to get questions answered and report concerns. It is open 8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily and can be reached at 330-424-7139. Residents who feel sick are encouraged to call their healthcare provider. Many people in an East Palestine Talk Facebook group stated they had gotten bloodwork and CT scans done after experiencing symptoms.

What should I do if I come across a dead or sick animal?

Those in the area who come across sick animals should contact a veterinarian to seek treatment, according to the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.

“If you are suspicious your animal has died for an unknown reason, contact your local veterinarian for further consultation and guidance,” it writes on its website. “A full necropsy service and full diagnostic work-up would need to be performed to determine the official cause of death. The Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at the Ohio Department of Agriculture provides services for sick and diseased livestock for any reason, but does not have testing for vinyl chloride.”

The agency also said there is no information to suggest pets are not safe outside.

The role of misinformation

A town hall held Wednesday, Feb. 16, in East Palestine underscored the need for solid information. As Victoria Corbin, who lives in Darlington Township in Beaver County, which was among the areas evacuated, said at the evening meeting: “There’s still a lot of fear here.”

Misinformation has spread, including on social media, as residents attempt to get answers about the safety of their community — now and in the coming months and years.

Uncertainty is a breeding ground for misinformation, said Chris Reddy, senior scientist of marine chemistry and geochemistry at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “While I have no doubt these … chemicals have a huge amount of complexity, this isn’t Chernobyl, and yet you have an expert saying that, and it’s so dangerous,” he said. Mr. Reddy was referring to a news article that said East Palestine was “nuked.”

“The fact that more of these chemicals may have been released adds significance and complexity, but by far, none of these chemicals are radioactive nucleotides,” said Mr. Reddy.

“The process of science is slow, slower than we are used to,” he went on. “Science in real life is not like CSI.”

Dr. Maureen Lichtveld, dean of Pitt School of Public Health and a physician, said psychological stress from chemical spills can take a toll on residents equal to physical symptoms. Dr. Lichtveld previously worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. She helped coordinate emergency response for multiple disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 BP oil spill and the 9/11 attacks.

“The people who live around it have concerns, and the longer we wait to address those concerns, the higher the anxiety and stress will be,” she said. “In many cases, even if the data comes back and says everything is fine, that doesn’t preclude people from feeling concerned.”


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