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East Palestine, OH: A Scientist Speaks Out 

Photo credit: Michael Swensen / Getty Images

By Stephen Lester.

East Palestine, OH: A Scientist Speaks Out 

The situation in East Palestine, OH remains very frustrating for many residents. They are trying to make sense of the contrast between what EPA tells them with the many adverse health symptoms they are experiencing firsthand. Many residents continue to suffer from nose bleeds, headaches, skin rashes, thyroid problems and more caused by the horrific derailment and subsequent intentional burning of five tanker cars full of vinyl chloride. A highly toxic chemical known to cause cancer, liver damage, central nervous system and other adverse health effects. EPA continues to tell people that everything is fine and Norfolk Southern, the train operator, is tired of paying for temporary housing which some people have used to move out.

The letter below, reprinted in its entirety, is from an independent scientist who has taken air samples from inside the homes in of some people still living in East Palestine. This will give you some idea what people there are continuing to go through. The letter was addressed to the Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance and Ohio representative Bill Johnson. EPA has refused to respond to these independent test results and continues to ignore pleas for additional testing in homes in East Palestine. 

Senator Sherrod Brown, J.D. Vance

Congressman Bill Johnson

(sent by email)

Hart Senate Office Building, 201 2nd St NE, Washington, D.C. 20002

June 17, 2023

Dear Senators and Congressman representing Ohio:

I am a professor at Purdue University evaluating health risks of conditions that impact people and businesses in and around East Palestine, Ohio. I want to share important findings with you. After my June 10-12 investigation in East Palestine, I have serious concerns for the safety of children, adults, and businesses. During this, my sixth field investigation, I discovered, again, that acute chemical exposures are occurring inside some residential and commercial buildings near the derailment site and along the contaminated Sulfur Run. I provide four recommendations below.

There are still acute health threats inside buildings that agencies have yet to eliminate. Several buildings around the derailment site and along Sulfur Run still have the characteristic odor of chemical contamination. I have smelled it firsthand and we have been doing nearby environmental testing. Last week some occupants indicated that they became ill and have been avoiding certain buildings even after airing them out repeatedly. Some occupants have paid for indoor air testing which revealed butyl acrylate exceeding the ATSDR screening level, soot was present, and other chemicals present (e.g., ethylhexyl acrylate, benzene). Other occupants do not have financial ability to pay for indoor air testing, but I can confirm the odor was present. Norfolk Southern contractors did visit some buildings in February using inadequate air testing devices,[1] and in one case, their team left the building because of the unpleasant odor they encountered. Some occupants told me that Norfolk Southern said they will not help them because there is legal action against them. Some building occupants have told me they cannot spend more than 2 to 5 minutes inside their building without experiencing side effects. In February/March, the East Palestine Municipal Building (85 N. Market Street), where town council meets, was contaminated with chemicals from Sulfur Run. Agencies found chemicals entering through unplugged drain pipes beneath the building. This was corrected, but contamination in other residential and commercial buildings remains.

Actions needed are to:

  1. Decontaminate all residential, commercial, and government buildings surrounding the derailment site and along Sulfur Run. This will help maintain anonymity.
  2. Conduct chemical testing inside these buildings for soot and over several weeks for volatile organic compounds (VOC) and semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOC).
  3. Inspect and eliminate pathways where chemicals enter buildings from the Sulfur Run culverts that go underneath and alongside buildings (i.e., building pipes, drains, cracked concrete, sumps, etc.).

Evidence shows that this disaster has repeatedly exceeded the scientific and organizational capability of the USEPA and other agencies involved. You may consider recommending:

  • The assembly and charging of an independent team of public experts to advise decision makers about scientific issues with this disaster. Areas of expertise needed are air quality, water quality, materials, civil engineering, environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, public health, environmental health, epidemiology, groundwater, risk assessment, among others.

Please do not hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at


Andrew Whelton

Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering

Purdue University

West Lafayette, IN

[1] Borst and Bogardus. E&E News. June 1, 2023: EPA promised clarity, transparency after Ohio train derailment. But some air monitors didn’t work. – E&E News by POLITICO (

Toxic Tuesdays


Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.


Selenium is a mineral found in most rocks and soil across the globe. It can be extracted and processed from rock for commercial and manufacturing uses. About half of the processed selenium in the world is used in glass production. Another large portion of processed selenium is used in electronics, such as batteries, solar cells, and photoconductors, and the production of rubber, plastics, paints, and inks.

Selenium can be released into the environment via the manufacturing or disposal process, thereby entering water and topsoil. People can then become exposed by drinking selenium-contaminated water or eating contaminated agricultural products. Selenium also bioaccumulates in fish, meaning people may be exposed to harmful levels of selenium even if they do not live near a manufacturing or disposal site. Short-term oral exposure to high levels of selenium can cause nausea and vomiting. Long-term oral exposure can cause a disease called selenosis, which can include gastrointestinal dysfunction, neurological dysfunction, hair loss, and sloughing off nails. In extreme cases, selenosis can even cause cirrhosis and death. Selenium dust can also be released into the air when burning oil or coal. This can cause coughing, bronchitis, and irritation of the respiratory tract, which can make it difficult to breathe.

While trace amounts of selenium are required to maintain human health, short- or long-term exposure to high amounts of selenium are dangerous. There are many examples from around the world of people, fish, and birds being poisoned by selenium. With its diverse array of commercial and manufacturing uses, it is crucial that protections be put in place to ensure that people are not exposed to it.

Learn about more toxics

Toxic Tuesdays


Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.


Ethylbenzene is a colorless flammable liquid that comes from coal tar and petroleum. It is primarily used to synthesize chemicals that are used in plastics. Ethylbenzene can also be used in fuels and injection fluid, which is used to release natural gas from the ground. It has industrial uses in solvents and pesticides and can also be found in consumer products like paint and ink. Spills and waste disposal from factories that use ethylbenzene often enter the water and soil. Burning oil, gas, coal, and cigarettes can release ethylbenzene into the air. Inhalation of this contaminated air is the primary path of exposure.

Brief inhalation of air contaminated with ethylbenzene can cause eye and throat irritation and dizziness. Little else is known about the human health effects of short- or long-term exposure to the chemical. In scientific studies of laboratory animals, short-term exposure has been shown to cause permanent hearing loss; long-term exposure has been shown to cause kidney damage too.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer says that ethylbenzene is a possible human carcinogen, meaning it might cause cancer in humans. While more studies could be done to better understand the effects of exposure on humans, it is clear ethylbenzene is a biologically dangerous chemical, and there should be protections in place to ensure that people are not exposed to it.


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Backyard Talk Homepage

A Look Back on CHEJ’s PVC-Free Program

Sam Suds and the Case of PVC: The Poison Plastic

By Gregory Kolen II.

In the early 2000s, CHEJ identified PVC or polyvinyl chloride, a common plastic material used in school supplies, as a significant source of health risks for children. PVC contains toxic chemicals that can cause serious health problems, such as cancer and hormone disruption. CHEJ launched the PVC-Free schools campaign, led by Mike Schade, to raise awareness among parents, teachers, and school administrators about the dangers of PVC and to encourage schools to switch to safer alternatives. The program’s approach was a mixture of advocacy and education, aiming to empower communities to take action and create change.

The PVC-Free campaign was successful in building a large grassroots network of parents, teachers, and advocates who shared the vision of a healthier and safer school environment for children. CHEJ provided free resources and training to help schools assess their PVC use and find safer alternatives. Moreover, the program put pressure on major companies to reduce or eliminate their use of PVC in products through consumer campaigns and lobbying. 

Because of the success of the PVC-Free schools campaign, many students attend schools that have eliminated PVC materials or products. Additionally, the program has increased public awareness of the risks associated with PVC, prompting people to take safety measures in their homes as well. This created a ripple effect on the industry, encouraging schools’ suppliers to find alternatives to PVC, thereby, reducing the overall demand for PVC.

The PVC-Free schools program is just one of the many initiatives that CHEJ has undertaken to address environmental health and justice issues. One in a long history of advocating for vulnerable communities and neighborhoods affected by environmental pollution and hazards, supporting communities in the fight against toxic chemicals and influencing policies on environmental health regulations.

CHEJ’s PVC-Free safe schools program has effectively raised awareness of the dangers of PVC and paved the way for safer alternatives. The success of this campaign has demonstrated the power of community-led efforts to create change and protect children’s health. As we look forward, it’s essential to continue advocating and educating the public to minimize exposure to toxic chemicals. 

Toxic Tuesdays

Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP)

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP)

Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) is a compound in a group of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs like BaP are formed in the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, or other organic matter. Once formed, they can enter the air, water and soil. The most common way people are exposed to PAHs is by inhaling contaminated air. Vehicle exhaust, wood smoke, asphalt paving and agricultural burning can expose people to PAHs like BaP.

Exposure to BaP for even short periods of time can affect blood cells, leading to anemia and immune system defects. Exposure for long periods of time can affect function of the reproductive system. In studies of laboratory animals, prenatal exposure to BaP impaired learning and memory of offspring.

The most widely known effect of BaP exposure is cancer, and links between BaP and cancer have been known since the 1970s. BaP is one of many components of tobacco smoke that can cause lung cancer. BaP is dangerous because the body converts it into other compounds that can permanently change our cells’ DNA. This can cause cells to function improperly leading to cell death, abnormal cell growth, tissue damage and/or cancer.

CHEJ has previously written about PAHs here.

Learn about more toxics

Backyard Monthly

Backyard Monthly – August 2023

August 2023
CHEJ's "All In" - Spotlight of the Month

We at CHEJ are thrilled to reflect upon the remarkable success of the 2023 People’s Action Initiative Convention last June! This year’s gathering of dedicated activists and community leaders was nothing short of inspiring. As an organization committed to environmental justice and empowering grassroots movements, we are eager to promote and share the valuable insights, knowledge, and discussions that took place during this convention.

The purpose of this convention was to start an Organizing Revival to “re-ground the movement for multiracial democracy in the powerful skills and traditions of community organizing.” With a collective commitment to building a more just and sustainable future, we are excited to be a part of People’s Action Initiative’s efforts in amplifying the movement’s impact and ensuring that it continues to shape and invigorate environmental justice at all levels.

CHEJ's Second Round of Small Grants is Here!

We are still accepting applications for the second round of our 2023 Small Grants Program. You can access the applications here.

The deadline is August 14th, 2023, so there’s still time to get in your application in or book an informative session with our Small Grants Manager, Teresa Mills, at .

Toxic Tuesday

Considering cumulative exposures to low levels mixtures of chemicals is an enormous challenge when evaluating the toxicity of chemicals. Neither the EPA nor ATSDR have guidance on how to evaluate exposure to multiple chemicals[Read more]

Total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) are a family of hundreds of chemicals that come from crude oil. When crude oil is spilled during extraction or processing into petroleum products, TPHs can contaminate the environment. Becau[Read more]

Training Calls

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are an emerging public health threat. Nicknamed the “forever” chemicals, they have contaminated drinking water across the U.S. PFAS are toxic at extremely low levels… [Watch now]

Backyard Talk Blogs

By Leila Waid. 2023 has already brought many climate change-related natural disasters. From the wildfires in Canada that covered the U.S. in particulate pollution, to the record-breaking heat waves gripping many parts of the world, this year has shown[Read more]

By Sharon Franklin. For Rose Sims and Lettie White, residents of South Memphis, Tennessee, despite it being a sunny, spring day in their neighborhood, they make a point to stay inside as much as possible[Read more]

By Gregory Kolen, II. As the return to school approaches, parents and children alike are gearing up for a busy shopping season. While it can be fun to get new school supplies, clothes, and accessories, it’s essential to keep health and safety in mind [Read more]

By Hunter Marion. On June 22nd, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Arizona v. Navajo Nation (2023) that the United States was not responsible for securing access to clean, fresh water for the Diné people. This is yet another blatant attack[Read more]

Do you find this information useful? Please consider pitching in and making a contribution to CHEJ. We appreciate your support!

As we prepare our children for the upcoming school season, it’s essential to remember that their safety extends beyond the classroom. It’s not just about equipping them with knowledge, but also ensuring they’re protected from harmful substances hidden in everyday school supplies. At CHEJ, we are deeply committed to safeguarding our children’s health and future.

Many common school supplies unfortunately contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), chemicals linked to health issues, from developmental problems to certain types of cancers. It’s truly alarming, and we believe our children deserve better. We aim to raise awareness about these harmful substances and advocate for safer alternatives. But to make this happen, we need your help.

With your generous donations, we can expand our reach, provide educational resources to parents and schools, and campaign against the use of PFAS and PVC in school supplies. Your contribution can make a significant difference in the lives of our children and their health.

On the next Training Call:

Our friends at the Children’s Environmental Health Network (CEHN) will discuss and share resources for improving school environmental health. Stay tuned for tips on how to protect children from toxics as you shop and prepare for the new school year.

Join us in our fight for environmental justice. Let’s ensure our children head back to school with safer supplies, for a healthier future.Thank you for your support!