In the two weeks since a 150-car train carrying toxic materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, officials are still working to determine the risk to nearby residents and the local environment. With a lack of fast and reliable facts, misinformation and conspiracies have spread through social media and even mainstream news.
This morning, I spoke with Keeve Nachman, an associate professor of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He told me that, to really understand future health outcomes from a chemical spill like this, officials need to know how much contact people had with the substances involved.
“There hasn’t been much focus on how well we understand people’s contact with the chemicals,” he told Earther. “In my field, which is the risk sciences, it’s really, really important to know both of those things… how much contact people have with the chemicals and what the chemicals do when you’re exposed.”
Nachman pointed out that vinyl chloride wasn’t simply released into the environment when it spilled from a derailed train car—it was also burned. Three days after the derailment, railroad operator and emergency officials conducted a controlled release and burning of vinyl chloride in an effort to avoid an explosion. A large black plume of smoke rose over the cleanup site, alarming residents who are now unsure about what health risks they may face.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine tweeted Wednesday that the municipal water is safe to drink. Several people responded, telling DeWine to drink the water himself and then report back to them. At a tumultuous town hall this week, community members demanded answers about their safety. Representatives from Norfolk Southern did not attend, which further angered East Palestine residents.
When burned, vinyl chloride creates phosgene and hydrogen chloride, which the EPA said are no longer a threat to residents in a February 14 update. But burning can also create polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can be carcinogenic, according to Nachman. PAHs are not mentioned in the EPA’s derailment press page. Nachman thinks the EPA and other responding agencies should test for these PAHs near the derailment site, along with the other chemicals mentioned in its press updates.
“PAHs are not the kind of chemical where you’d be particularly worried about a short-term, high-level exposure, but… if you’re exposed for a very long period of time, even at low levels, there’s a considerable increase in a person’s cancer risk,” he said.
Nachman is also concerned about the type of data the EPA has been collecting so far. “They said most of what they’ve done is what they call monitoring. And that’s what’s done with these handheld devices that aren’t very sensitive and don’t tell you about many different chemicals.”
Another expert, environmental health researcher Peter DeCarlo, told Earther earlier this week that a better form of sampling involves capturing air in special canisters and taking them to a lab for analysis. “That’s the type of monitoring that really gives us an idea of what are the concentrations of the potential risk,” DeCarlo said. “So if they’re not doing that at the accident site and downwind of the accident site, they’re missing what potential risks exist.”
I asked Nachman if he would feel safe staying in East Palestine or if he would drink the water there. “We just don’t know enough to answer that question,” he responded.
Nachman is hopeful after reading the EPA’s February 17 update, which mentions coordination between EPA region 5, which covers Ohio, and EPA region 3, which covers nearby Pennsylvania, as well as with the agency’s headquarters. “There are people downwind in Pennsylvania that have been exposed,” he said. “That exposure has been much less explored.”
“I just have sympathy for the folks who live there, and the uncertainty that I know can really weigh on a person,” he said. “I’m hopeful that the agency being there and increasing its presence there over the last 24 hours is going to lead to a better understanding and more effective safety interventions.”