‘Nobody has answers’: Ohio residents fearful of health risks near train site

Locals who live near the site of the toxic train derailment describe ‘burning eyes and throat’ as experts say the EPA is needlessly putting their health at risk

When crews conducted a controlled burn of giant quantities of toxic vinyl chloride in the wake of the train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio, they nullified the risk of a potentially deadly explosion.

But the preventative burn created new potential risks over the horizon. Compounds such as dioxins, chlorinated PAHs and other chemical byproducts of vinyl chloride combustion, some of which are highly toxic, can accumulate in the environment, and could pose a long-term health threat in the East Palestine area and downwind.

Though a growing chorus of calls from independent environmental researchers and senators is pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to test for dioxins and other dangerous chemicals, the agency has resisted taking those steps, and, some critics say, is needlessly putting residents’ health at risk with its decisions.

“We don’t have any information on the presence of dioxins and we don’t have information on whether [the EPA] is testing for them because the messaging has been focused on ‘We’re not seeing vinyl chloride’, and that’s problematic,” said Pete DeCarlo, an environmental health researcher with Johns Hopkins University who characterized dioxins as a “particularly nasty chemical”.

A Norfolk Southern train carrying vinyl chloride used to produce PVC plastic derailed on 3 February in the small industrial town of 4,700 people located at the edge of the Appalachian hills, close to the Pennsylvania border. The EPA on Tuesday released data that showed no major concerns for a range of chemicals for which it had tested, but independent scientists who reviewed the data say a number of gaps remain, even beyond dioxins.

Petroleum-based chemicals float on the top of the water in Leslie Run creek after being agitated from the sediment, in East Palestine.
Petroleum-based chemicals float on the top of the water in Leslie Run creek after being agitated from the sediment, in East Palestine. Photograph: Michael Swensen/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the Ohio health department opened a free health clinic at a church in the middle of town amid mounting fear and frustration among residents who continue to suffer acute symptoms including headache, nausea, cough, a burning sensation in the throat and nose, and panic attacks.

Retirees Ron Caratelli, 63, and his wife Peggy, 64, live less than a mile from the toxic spill site, and came in for a check-up as they have been unable to return home due to adverse health impacts.

“Every time we try to come back to the house, I get burning eyes and throat, and a chemical taste in the back of my mouth, it’s not good … yesterday I had a weird sensation in my lungs,” said Ron Caratelli. “What is this doing to me and others long-term, nobody really has answers. Is it even safe to plant a garden this year?”

“We’re older, by the time you see the attorney ads on TV for people who lived in East Palestine during the train derailment we’ll be dead. But what about the little kids around this town, what kind of effects will they have?” he added.

The EPA and the administration of Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, have not tested for PFAS stemming from firefighting foam used at the site, which probably contaminated the water and soil. PFAS are human-made chemicals used in huge numbers of products for consumer and industrial use and often called forever chemicals because they generally don’t break down over time in the environment.

Officials should also test for PFAS likely contaminating soil and water, said Kimberly Garrett, a Northeastern University toxicologist. The highly toxic compounds could potentially stick around in drinking water sources for decades, and also could have moved downstream in a plume.

People wait in line at the Norfolk Southern Assistance Center to collect a $1,000 check and get reimbursed for evacuation expenses, in East Palestine.
People wait in line at the Norfolk Southern Assistance Center to collect a $1,000 check and get reimbursed for evacuation expenses, in East Palestine. Photograph: Michael Swensen/Getty Images

Ben Terwilliger, 52, lives less than 1,000ft (about 300m) from the derailment site with his wife and teenage children, and his eyes began burning as soon as they returned home after the evacuation order was lifted. He is also very concerned about the health implications of undetected toxins in the water, air and soil, he told the Guardian on Thursday.

“Everything I put in my mouth tastes like a copper penny, from water to toothpaste to pasta and bread. What worries me most is the unknown, what happens to us in the long-term from the forever chemicals and the byproducts of what was on the train? My kids have a lot of life left in them, it’s really concerning,” said Terwilliger, as a freight train with more than 100 wagons, carrying explosive and toxic materials, chugged past.

“My wife just wants to leave, but it’s not that easy,” he added.

And while experts who spoke with the Guardian say levels of toxic chemicals detected by the EPA weren’t a health threat in isolation, some questioned whether a soup of low-level exposures to multiple compounds could present a risk. Others pointed to EPA air monitors, which were poorly positioned to detect chemical releases during the burn, and were not far enough downwind.

Plugging these holes would require the agency to expand its testing into Pennsylvania and continue to monitor into the foreseeable future, said Keeve Nachman, a public health researcher with Johns Hopkins University who partly focuses on chemical exposure health risks.

“What is now critical for responders to do is collect more data spatially and over more time,” he said.

An air quality monitor hangs from a sign near the site of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
An air quality monitor hangs from a sign near the site of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Photograph: Michael Swensen/Getty Images

The EPA did not respond to questions about testing for dioxins or PFAS, but in a 17 February email provided to the Guardian, an agency official downplayed the risk and suggested it had no immediate plans to test for dioxins.

Dioxins are a family of highly toxic compounds formed during the manufacture and burning of chlorinated chemicals often used to make PVC plastic. They are classified as carcinogens, and considered to be endocrine disruptors that can affect reproductive, developmental and immune systems.

“When people are exposed for long periods of time to very low levels [of dioxin] – that’s a considerable cancer risk,” Nachman said. The chemicals’ half-lives are estimated to be seven to 11 years, which means, if someone has one part of dioxin in their body, it will take that long for half of it to degrade.”

The vinyl chloride combustion process “almost certainly” created dioxins, DeCarlo said, and the chemicals are persistent and accumulate in the environment. They could be in the East Palestine region’s air, homes, water and soil, and could get into crops and livestock – food, is humans’ main exposure route, said Mike Schade, a public health advocate with Toxic Free Future.

The chemicals are highly mobile, meaning they easily move through the air and could have been deposited downwind in Pennsylvania, or in agricultural regions surrounding East Palestine.

Until regulators test and release data for dioxins, it is impossible to calculate the risk, but, in an email to Schade, the agency downplayed the threat, citing the chemicals’ atmospheric mobility.

“Any dioxins from the controlled burn would have been dispersed in the atmosphere since February 6, EPA will research the potential for the burning to create elevated levels of dioxins posing a health threat and discuss the need for sampling with our federal and state health partners,” an EPA official told Schade.

Wreckage from the derailment is seen on 20 February.
Wreckage from the derailment is seen on 20 February. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Experts speculated the EPA may not be testing for dioxins because the process is expensive and difficult. A cleanup would also be costly, but the agency has said Norfolk Southern will be forced to pay.

Meanwhile, the EPA and state regulators have a history of “false all clears” that have put people in danger, said Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney, now with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

He noted how the EPA declared the air around the World Trade Center site to be safe after the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attack on New York, but evidence later produced by a whistleblower showed the agency knew the air was not, and that contributed to first responders’ illnesses and premature death.

“There is strong pressure in these situations to create an air of normalcy, but the danger is that the EPA and state officials are moving too quickly and without proper information,” Whitehouse said.


Nina Lakhani in East Palestine and Tom Perkins

The GuardianTramp

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