How many times have we heard the same refrain from government leaders and scientists involved in community wide exposures such as the recent train derailment in Paulsboro, NJ that released 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride into the air? “There’s no cause for alarm, we have everything under control.”
If only this were true. Instead, many of the hundreds of people in the 27 block area that was evacuated remain frustrated by the lack of answers to their questions about health effects and accountability. This frustration is driven by how government leaders and scientists evaluate health risks and by the many uncertainties about what is known about the short and long term health effects of being exposed to vinyl chloride or other chemicals. Scientists can estimate risks and give their opinions, but we simply don’t know what’s going to happen to the health of the people who were exposed to vinyl chloride in the aftermath of this accident. Yet this is exactly what people want to know – what’s going to happen to their health or to the health of their children as a result of this accident?
Here’s what we do know. We know that vinyl chloride is a human carcinogen and that it damages the liver and central nervous system; that more than 200 families within a half mile of the accident site were evacuated; that the Coast Guard and other authorities acted swiftly in evacuating the homes immediately surrounding the site of the accident; that the train pulling 84 cars derailed on a bridge over Mantua Creek; that seven rail cars derailed; 4 contained vinyl chloride; one ethanol; three fell into the creek; and one ruptured releasing vinyl chloride into the air (see photo). We also know that 10 days later most people are back in their homes with assurances from the local authorities that everything is fine.
This is not surprising because it’s the practical thing to do. But what was the scientific basis for this decision? Air samples taken by EPA on December 8th and 9th from throughout the surrounding neighborhood found vinyl chloride in every sample taken. Eight of the nine samples exceeded the EPA’s one-in-a million cancer risk value (EPA’s trigger level for action). Yet people are back in their homes. EPA’s interpretation of this data is that is that the results are within the agency’s “acceptable” risk range, which varies by a factor of 1,000. This is a ridiculously large risk range that has no meaning in protecting public health.
So the stalemate is set up between government leaders and scientists telling people that everything is fine and a frustrated community that has no answers. Given this dynamic, it’s not surprising that 54 residents filed suit this week against Conrail and CSX for damages. What they want is medical screening for early detection of life threatening medical conditions linked to vinyl chloride. This is actually a reasonable response to the many uncertainties that exist in the scientific understanding of what will happen to the health of the people exposed to toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride.
Had the government leaders and scientists in Paulsboro recognized the scientific uncertainties and more honestly acknowledged how little is known about chemical exposures and health outcomes, there may have been a more satisfying resolution. A resolution that might have included practical steps forward such as medical screening for early detection of medical conditions linked to vinyl chloride. Testing that should be paid for by the companies responsible for the accident and who own the chemicals.
As long as decision makers continue to protect the companies responsible for area-wide chemical exposures such as what occurred in Paulsboro, this scenario will continue to play out as it has since the days of Love Canal more than 30 years ago. Isn’t it time we publicly acknowledge what we don’t know about exposures to toxic chemicals and stop deluding ourselves that using risk estimates that define “acceptable” exposures is the best way to manage toxic chemicals? There is no acceptable exposure if you‘re the one being exposed.