Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, have complained of symptoms including headaches and difficulty breathing following a nearby train derailment that spilled millions of litres of industrial chemicals last month. Officials at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and local, state and federal agencies, as well as the train’s operator, Norfolk Southern, have been monitoring water and air quality in the town — but community members haven’t been satisfied with official reports claiming that levels of the chemicals are low and safe.
Some independent researchers have arrived on the scene, hoping to help with more measurements and analyses. Others have been invited by residents who want a second opinion. The teams think they can help to fill the gaps left by authorities.
“The residents had a disconnect between them experiencing some symptoms, and everybody telling them everything was okay,” says Ivan Rusyn, director of the Texas A&M University Superfund Research Center in College Station.
Rusyn is part of a group of researchers at Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that drove a mobile laboratory around East Palestine on 20 and 21 February to measure air quality. Many of their measurements agreed with the EPA’s. But the researchers did detect levels of acrolein — a chemical irritant that affects the eyes, skin and respiratory system — that were three times as high as those in downtown Pittsburgh, some 80 kilometres away. (On a normal day, rural areas such as East Palestine usually have lower levels of air pollutants than do urban ones.) The scientists say that, if this level persists, it could affect residents’ health.
On 6 February, three days after the train accident, authorities evacuated a 5-square-kilometre area that includes East Palestine. They punctured the train cars to drain the chemicals they had been carrying, including vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, into pits. This was followed by a ‘controlled burn’ of the materials, to avoid an explosion, which generated an enormous black cloud over the site and probably created acrolein and other combustion by-products.
In a statement to Nature, the EPA said that it had detected slightly elevated levels of acrolein in East Palestine in the weeks following the derailment, but that these levels do not pose health risks in the short term. “Those concentrations have since returned to levels below the national median,” the agency said.
More sampling needed
The Texas A&M–Carnegie Mellon team’s findings highlight the importance of looking at a broader suite of chemicals than just those spilled during the train derailment, or ones that were likely to have formed during the controlled burn. Doing a ‘non-targeted analysis’ to find less-obvious compounds takes some time but is important, Albert Presto, a member of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies, said during an online briefing on 3 March.
In addition to acrolein, the group found higher concentrations of four more acrolein-like compounds around East Palestine than in surrounding areas, as well as another compound of concern in certain hot spots. “More sampling is needed,” Rusyn says, especially because crews working on clean-up efforts will continue excavating contaminated soil and aerating the water in local streams to extract chemicals. This could release more compounds into the air, he adds.
One problem that the Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon researchers see with the government response is a failure to communicate clearly with residents. For instance, it hasn’t been clear, Rusyn says, whether agencies on the scene have considered the effects of long-term exposure when they say a chemical level is safe.
When asked what it is considering, the EPA told Nature that, in the first two weeks of an emergency response, it’s important to focus on short-term-exposure concerns — and its work can transition to longer-term concerns as time goes on.
The official reports are difficult to interpret, even for scientists, says Nicole Karn, a chemist at the Ohio State University in Columbus. “There’s already a lot of distrust among residents about whether the EPA is being truthful,” Karn says, “so [agency officials] have an uphill battle when it comes to regaining trust”.
Keith Richeal, an East Palestine resident who lives five blocks from the train-derailment site, says that a strong chemical odour in the air still comes and goes, depending on the weather, and that his family has been experiencing symptoms that he thinks are related to the spill. His wife has a rash on her back, and he has been having bloody noses. He doesn’t have trust in the EPA test results because they “are all coming back the same”. He has hired an independent contractor to test the soil at his house and is waiting for results.
In its statement, the EPA said that it is posting daily updates on its website and is “actively looking for ways to better illustrate the information”. The agency also has a welcome centre in town, a 24-hour hotline and weekly open houses at which residents can ask questions, it said.
This isn’t the first time independent researchers have been called in to evaluate a chemical disaster. In 2014, after Flint, Michigan, switched its drinking-water source from Lake Huron to Flint River, residents noticed changes in their water’s taste, smell and appearance. Dissatisfied with statements by officials that the water was safe, they asked for a second opinion. In 2015, researchers revealed that there were dangerous levels of lead in the water, partially because of water-treatment decisions made by the city.
Mona Hanna-Attisha, a public-health researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing, was part of that effort. In situations like the one in East Palestine, she says, it’s important for authorities and health providers to use a trauma-informed response. “This is an entire community that has gone through a trauma,” she says. “Anxiety is negatively impacting their health. That’s something that folks on the ground have to be cognizant of” when interacting with residents.
Andrew Whelton, an environmental and ecological engineer at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, agrees that East Palestine’s residents are experiencing fear. He travelled to the town in late February, after a community group, United for East Palestine, reached out to him. “They were reporting health impacts and concerns,” he says. “And they were not getting answers.”
Along with colleagues and students, he has visited homes, interviewed residents and collected water samples from private wells, faucets and two local creeks. Whelton’s team and other researchers at Purdue analysed the samples and found several chemicals that could have been released following the accident, including acrolein. They are still analysing the data to determine the exact levels of the compounds and whether they are of concern.
But Whelton says that the water from the creeks, in particular, felt “slimy” and had a “distinct sharp odour”. According to the EPA, water from the municipal system is safe to drink. The agency is encouraging people using private wells to drink bottled water until their wells have been tested.
Richeal applauds the efforts by scientists. “It’s very important that independent researchers are doing this,” he says. He’s particularly worried about long-term effects: “You might think everything is okay right now. But what happens when you get all this rain and everything gets into the ground? There’s a lot of unknowns.”
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on March 20, 2023.