Environmental scientists call for more transparency over contamination monitoring in East Palestine, focusing on testing for dioxins — dangerous chemicals that may get into the food supply.
Early in February, 38 cars of Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, 11 of which were carrying hazardous chemicals, including vinyl chloride, a human carcinogen. To prevent the explosion, which could cause the disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes, the railroad company conducted a "controlled release" of chemicals.
The accident raised concerns among environmental activists and researchers, and most importantly, the residents, who continue to report symptoms typical of chemical exposure, such as rashes, burning sensation in their eyes or when they breathe, headaches, and more.
Nonetheless, officials claim the area to be safe. As of March 1, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted 578 home re-entry screenings and found no elevated levels of air contamination. In February, Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio and officials from the EPA and the FDA drank the tap water in front of the cameras to ease local and national concerns.
But nearly one month after the accident, workers who had started removing toxic waste from the accident site report experiencing migraines and nausea.
Scientists urge to test for dioxins
Reports of symptoms associated with chemical exposure can mean that testing is inadequate, says Jeniffer Sass, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Natural Resources Defence Council (NDRC), a not-for-profit international environmental advocacy group. She says it is unclear what agencies are using as their threshold for what is safe and what is not.
Sass is most concerned about dioxins and furan. These are toxic chemicals that form when vinyl chloride is burned off and that may get into the food supply and soil. "If there are cows nearby, chemicals can get into the milk and meat," she explains.
The EPA announced Thursday ordering Norfolk Southern to test directly for dioxins in East Palestine but said the data shows a low probability of releasing these substances. Two days prior, the agency said it could not conduct such a test due to dioxins' ubiquity in the environment and the absence of baseline information for the area.
Kimberly K. Garrett, Ph.D., M.P.H., an environmental health researcher at Northeastern University, says that dioxin contamination is widespread. Still, it is impossible to tell what are dioxin-related health risks associated with this incident unless these substances are identified.
"In a similar incident in Europe, dioxins were only identified in elevated levels close to the site of the derailment. Elevated dioxin exposure was not indicated in human urine samples. I hope the same, or better, can be said for East Palestine, but we cannot know without testing," she tells Healthnews.
The EPA says it has collected at least 115 air, soil, surface water, and sediment samples in the potentially affected area as of February 28. Sass, however, calls for more transparency and disclosure on how sensitive monitoring is and what agencies are looking for. She says that agencies should concentrate on water and soil testing at this time, as contaminants may move into groundwater.
"You can test water one day and not detect a contaminant. And you can test it an hour, day, or week later, and contaminants would be detected, depending on how they move," she says.
A group of researchers from Texas A&M University and Carnegie Mellon University used a mobile air quality laboratory to evaluate levels of some 80 chemicals along most streets of East Palestine in mid-February. They found levels of nine chemicals to be higher than normal. If continued, researchers say, these chemicals may be a health concern, especially acrolein, which causes inflammation and irritation of the skin, respiratory tract, and mucous membranes.
What are the long-term risks?
According to the CDC, the release of vinyl chloride causes most concerns, as long-term exposure to the chemical is associated with liver, brain, and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia.
Other hazardous materials spilled during the accident, such as butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, are not carcinogens but are linked with several health conditions.
The byproducts from the burning of the chemicals could cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, and can interfere with hormones, explains Erin N. Haynes, DrPH, M.S., Kurt W. Deuschle Professor of Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health at the University of Kentucky's College of Public Health.
"Because vinyl chloride exposure can cause liver damage, residents should ask their primary care physician for a liver function test," she says.
But what level of exposure to these chemicals is safe may depend on the individual's health status, Sass says. For example, a pregnant woman or a child can be more vulnerable than a healthy adult.
"Many people report nose, throat, and skin irritation. So if you already have some allergies, asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, you may be more vulnerable," she explains.
"There may be other chemical exposures people are experiencing in their environment, and those would add to this exposure and may tip someone over the threshold," Sass adds.
How to protect yourself
While contamination levels remain unclear, Garrett says people in the area could take a few steps to protect themselves, such as wearing an N95 mask when cleaning dust particles. They could also spray dust and soot with soap and water before wiping clean because those larger particles can be respiratory irritants, no matter their composition.
"Additionally, I'd recommend keeping yourself, pets, and children out of local streams and mud puddles. If you have a private well, get the water tested," Garret tells Healthnews.
Ohio lawmakers have urged the Biden Administration to provide healthcare for East Palestine residents under the Affordable Care Act provision that foresees Medicare to Americans in case of exposure to certain environmental health hazards. Haynes agrees that Medicare should cover a clinician-requested liver damage test and other testing needed to identify long-term health outcomes.
Garrett says this incident exemplifies the need for precautionary regulation, and universal healthcare is part of a precautionary and equitable public health landscape.
She says, "For East Palestine specifically, ongoing medical monitoring and healthcare programs can help address many uncertainties related to the incident and can provide peace of mind to impacted residents, who might request specific tests based on potential exposures. The community should not be expected to pay for Norfolk Southern's negligence, including at the doctor's office."
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