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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 (

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Betraying the Public’s Trust – EPA’s Terrible Response to East Palestine, OH

Betraying the Public's Trust
Photo credit: Michael Swensen/Getty Images

By Stephen Lester.

Since immediately following the train derailment and intentional burn of toxic chemicals in East Palestine, OH, the USEPA has betrayed the public’s trust in government. The agency has put out a steady stream of statements telling people that everything is alright. They saw no reason to test for vinyl chloride, for example, even after the railroad company, Norfolk Southern, dumped 5 tankers cars into a ditch alongside the railroad tracks and then intentionally set it on fire. EPA did this with other chemicals as well.  

They continued to tell people that everything was fine even though they saw no reason to test for dioxin even though there was no question that dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals every tested, would be generated when the vinyl chloride was burned.

The Region 5 Administrator got into the act when she said that EPA couldn’t test for dioxin because they don’t know what the background is. Really? And when EPA reluctantly agreed to test for dioxin, they immediately said that they expected to find dioxins at levels consistent with background.

Soon after the testing began, EPA repeatedly and aggressively downplayed the presence of dioxins and other toxic chemicals in East Palestine while providing little if any data to back up their claims. The agency seemed much more concerned with controlling a predefined narrative than they were with honestly responding to the concerns and questions raised by the public.

This is confusing because the agency is very familiar with dioxins. They understand the serious health risks that exposure to dioxins poses. For more than 25 years, the agency studied the health risks of dioxins. Exposure to dioxins can cause cancer, reproductive damage, developmental problems, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, infertility in adults, impairment of the immune system, skin lesions and more. Yet the agency has been desperate to convince the public that there is no cause for alarm.

My guess is that they are pushing so hard because they don’t have answers to the many questions people are asking about dioxins. While it’s not easy to address these questions, it’s irresponsible for the agency to pretend that dioxins are irrelevant.

The EPA‘s mission is to protect human health and the environment. Clearly the situation in East Palestine is the place where EPA should follow its mission and do right by the people who live in this community. EPA must conduct testing for dioxins and other chemicals that is intended to tell people specifically what they have been exposed to and then analyze the results in a way that helps people understand the risks they face.

The people who live in East Palestine have a right to this information so they can make informed decisions about their future. If EPA continues to betray the public’s trust, then the agency will be responsible for people living for years without clear answers about what happened in East Palestine, OH.

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What Do Paulsboro, NJ & East Palestine, OH Have in Common?

Photo credit: Paulsboro Fire & Rescue

By Sharon Franklin.

On November 30, 2012, the community of Paulsboro, New Jersey thought the vinyl chloride clouds were fog after a train derailment caused a rupture in a tank carrying chemicals. Zoë Read, reporter for WHYY, recently posted an article recounting this incident. Trisha Dello Iacono, a resident she interviewed, recalled that a train carrying a colorless flammable gas called vinyl chloride derailed less than four miles from her home, in Paulsboro, N.J. After researching the carcinogen, she placed towels around her windows and doors. But it wasn’t long before she felt a sugary burn in her mouth. She said “it [tasted] sweet, but it [tasted] like a chemical sweetness that you know something is not right. And then I started feeling like a tight band was around my head.” The Paulsboro accident led to the evacuation of hundreds of residents, and dozens of people sought medical attention afterwards. Conrail, the company responsible for the train, offered cash settlements after hundreds of residents filed lawsuits against the company. Fast forward to 2023 from Paulsboro, New Jersey to East Palestine, Ohio and this sounds very familiar.

Paulsboro Residents Are Still Feeling Health Impacts

Now, more than 10 years later, residents of Paulsboro still worry about long-term health impacts, and are still questioning whether enough has been done to prevent more accidents from occurring, especially after the Norfolk Southern freight train carrying the same product derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Dello Iacono was not evacuated. Despite not living in the evacuation zone, Dello Iacono said she and her son dealt with symptoms like headache, sore throat, and nausea. These symptoms lasted a few weeks. Her son Liam’s symptoms (nosebleeds) didn’t show up until six months after the train derailment. Later, when he started kindergarten his teacher noticed that he had short-term memory loss. In 2020, he was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. She still worries about the potential for serious health problems to arise in the future. She says, “The fear doesn’t go away.”

Very similar to the events surrounding East Palestine, shortly after the Paulsboro derailment, the New Jersey health department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Rutgers University conducted initial health evaluations for residents and first responders. The health department determined the chemical leak caused reversible, short-term but harmful health effects (eye and nasal irritation or headache). However, no state or federal agency had evaluated the long-term health impacts of those exposed, despite recommendations to do so. In Paulsboro, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) warned Conrail 23 times prior to the accident but the company failed to address the dangers. Mistakes were made by state officials, too, and after the accident, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection inaccurately told residents the chemicals had dissipated. Additionally, the volunteer firefighters weren’t adequately trained to respond to such hazards. They didn’t wear the appropriate protective gear, the state’s emergency response plan was insufficient, and the Paulsboro residents were not evacuated soon enough, according to the NTSB report.

What Do Communities Want?  

Dello Iacono said she wants Congress to pass legislation that forces rail companies to ensure their rails are safe.  In 2015, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez introduced legislation to impose stronger penalties on railroads that violated safety standards. However, the bill went nowhere.

Recently, Dello Iacono, traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend a hearing about rail safety. She said that she feels for the mothers of East Palestine, because “Knowing what I know now a decade later, we’re still dealing with health issues from our exposures, and to just think that’s what their future entails. It’s just really hard and my heart breaks for them.”

Hope for the Future

After East Palestine, legislation bills were introduced that would broaden the definition of a “high-hazard flammable train.” The bill would provide for stricter federal safety regulations and direct the Federal Railroad Administration to study wheel-related failures and derailments, enact new safety measures, and require large freight railroad companies to join a confidential “close call” reporting system. 

Toxic Tuesdays


Toxic Tuesdays

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


Isobutylene is a colorless gas that comes from natural gas. Its highly reactive nature makes it useful in the synthesis of many products including gasoline, rubber, plastics, resins, and other chemicals. Little toxicity information is known about isobutylene, and no occupational exposure limits are established, but exposure can cause irritation, headache, dizziness, and fatigue. The most dangerous feature of isobutylene is that it has a flash point of -80°C, meaning that above this temperature, it can ignite. As isobutylene is often in the presence of other flammable chemicals, isobutylene ignition can cause large explosions.

On February 3rd, 2023 a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Twenty of the derailed cars contained hazardous chemicals, including isobutylene. Some cars released these chemicals into the surrounding air, soil, and water. On February 6th, Norfolk Southern made the decision to conduct a controlled burn of some of the remaining chemicals. Nearby residents were evacuated because of the health hazard of inhaling the smoke fumes. In addition to the fumes, release of chemicals into the surrounding environment could cause serious health problems. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources found that over seven miles of stream were affected by the chemical spill and thousands of fish died, raising concerns about dangers to residents in a large radius surrounding the spill. EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to identify and clean up contaminated soil and water. However, secrecy surrounding the scale of the accident and a reluctance to test thoroughly for all chemicals of concern has frustrated residents. EPA must prioritize the health of East Palestine residents and work transparently with them to identify and remediate the effects of this train derailment, chemical spill, and fire.

Learn about more toxics

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East Palestine, OH – Repeating the Mistakes of Love Canal

Photo credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / Getty Images

By Stephen Lester.

Shortly after the horrific Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred in East Palestine, OH, I was invited to attend a town hall meeting organized by River Valley Organizing. The purpose of the meeting was to give people the opportunity to ask questions and hopefully, get some answers.

This was about 3 weeks after the rail company made the decision to spill the contents and then burn 5 tanker cars holding vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals into a ditch alongside the railroad tracks at the site of the 38-car derailment. This intentional burn unleashed a gigantic black cloud full of particulates that enveloped the surrounding neighborhoods and farms in both Ohio and Pennsylvania (the accident was just a few miles from the state border).

It is well documented that burning chlorinated chemicals like vinyl chloride will generate dioxins. Dioxin is the name given to a group of persistent, very toxic chemicals that share similar chemical structures. The most toxic form of dioxin is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD. TCDD is more commonly recognized as the toxic contaminant found in “Agent Orange”  and at Love Canal, New York and Times Beach, Missouri. Dioxin is not deliberately manufactured. Rather, it is the unintended by-product of industrial processes that use or burn chlorine. It is also produced when chemicals like vinyl chloride are burned, such as what occurred in East Palestine.

At the town hall meeting, people talked about what it was like when the black cloud reached their property. One person who lived 15 miles away described burned ash material from the fire that settled on her property. Another who lived 3 miles away described how the black cloud completely smothered his property. People repeatedly asked: Was it safe for my kids to play in the yard? Is it safe to grow a garden? What is going to happen to my farm animals?

As I sat there listening, I was struck by how similar the questions were to what I had encountered when working at the Love Canal landfill in Niagara Falls, NY more than 40 years ago. People were raising important questions that deserve to be answered. But there were no clear answers. Just as it was at Love Canal.

It was also eerie how similar the response by the government authorities has been. Just like at Love Canal, the people of East Palestine are being told there’s no cause for alarm, that all the testing shows that no chemicals have been found at levels of “concern.” And just like Love Canal, the people in East Palestine are not buying it because they know things are not right. They are suffering from a range of respiratory and central nervous system symptoms including headaches, nose bleeds, runny noses, tearing eyes, and more.

As occurred at Love Canal, government scientists are not being honest with the people at East Palestine. If they did that, they would tell them what they know and what they don’t know. That would be helpful. But government won’t do that, because if they do, if they acknowledge how little is known about the link between adverse health effects and exposures to mixtures of chemicals, the people of East Palestine would demand action in the face of the huge uncertainties. Actions like paying for people to relocate from the area so that they can stop being exposed to the toxic chemicals – which are still in the air – or getting the health care they need and moving on with their lives.

It’s also unfortunate that so little had changed in the science of what we know about what happens to people who have been exposed to mixtures of chemicals like what occurred in East Palestine. This might have been understandable 40 or so years ago, but not today. It’s inexcusable that we didn’t learn from Love Canal and are repeating the same mistakes because we still know very little about widespread exposures to chemical mixtures.

The people in East Palestine deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and that includes expecting their government to act to protect their health in the face of the many uncertainties that exist in understanding the adverse health effects that result from these exposures. It’s time to do right by the people of East Palestine.    

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CTEH: The Fox in the Chicken Coop

Photo credit: Rebecca Kiger, The Washington Post/Getty Images

By Hunter Marion.

On March 12, 2023, ProPublica published an article in which CHEJ’s Science Director, toxicologist Stephen Lester, was commented as saying that “[Norfolk Southern] is responsible for the costs of cleaning up this accident.” The article went on to inform how the company was going about backing the bill for this cleanup.

Norfolk Southern has recruited the private environmental firm, Center for Toxicological and Environmental Health (CTEH), for the monitoring and removal of residual vinyl chloride and other chemicals. The problem with this choice is that CTEH has been the go-to company for alleged big polluters to utilize and sign-off on their controversial cleanups.

So, what is CTEH? It is an Arkansas-based company that, according to its website, is “committed to safeguarding your workers, your community, and the environment.” However, their record shows that this messaging is directed more towards compromised companies rather than harmed citizens. Starting in 1996, CTEH gradually gained prominence amongst alleged big polluters for performing toxicological evaluations and risk assessments that environmentalists would argue as being pro-industry.

  • In 2006, CTEH seemingly downplayed the health impacts of hydrogen sulfide in a report they wrote for the Chinese construction company, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, about their drywall. This drywall was later discovered to be highly toxic in 2009 and led to two giant class-action lawsuits in the U.S.
  • In 2008, 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash broke through a 57-foot dike maintained by the Tennessee Valley Authority and flooded the town of Kingston, TN. While assessing the largest industrial spill in U.S. history, CTEH allegedly failed to meet quality assurance standards and used inaccurate air monitoring procedures during an audit. Arguably, the results of these actions disguised the true extent of the airborne coal ash that was present.
  • In 2010, CTEH purportedly underwent covert operations to release Corexit (a highly toxic dispersant) upon millions of gallons of crude oil during the Deepwater Horizon ocean spill. This resulted in the appearance of oil removal, until the following winter when it was shown that the oil was pushed further underwater and diverted to nearby watersheds and protected wetlands.
  • In 2016, a Husky Energy pipeline burst and poisoned a river with roughly 250,000 liters of crude oil within the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada. CTEH supposedly created a testing zone excluding the waterways most affecting the First Nations community. The results came back inconclusive, which likely justified Husky Energy to continue ignoring the community’s cries of concern.
  • In 2019, the International Terminals Company’s chemical storage facility in Houston, TX caught on fire. The resulting smoke cloud that covered most of the city released 9 million pounds of pollutants in one day, shutdown many municipal school districts with shelter-at-place advisories, and exposed the nearby city of Deer Park to extreme amounts of benzene (citizens later suffered severe symptoms). Afterwards, CTEH apparently performed insufficient air quality tests. Their dubious results were readily approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and EPA.

Numerous toxicologists and environmental experts have decried CTEH’s methods as being suspicious to sinister. Activists and even politicians have warned against using their services (most notably during the Deepwater Horizon fiasco). Now, CTEH has been given the authority to control the narrative about how many toxic chemicals are truly present in East Palestine. As observed by former Exxon chemical engineer, Nicholas Cheremisinoff, CTEH is “essentially the fox guarding the chicken coop.”

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Why Are We Unprepared for Environmental Disasters?

Photo credit: Matthew Hatcher/Bloomberg via Getty Images

By Leila Waid.

The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, shows that our country is unprepared to address environmental emergencies adequately. Environmental disasters of the past show that accidents, just like human error, are inevitable. But how our society responds to these events can make all the difference. It can mean the difference between a life lost, and a life saved.

The Norfolk and Southern train derailment carrying toxic materials, such as ethanol and propane,  was not the first environmental emergency facing our country. Other human-made ecological disasters that have impacted the health and safety of the communities include the Love Canal toxic waste site, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Deepwater oil spill, the California fires caused by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and the Ringwood Mines Landfill Site.

There is no certainty that such destructive environmental events, like East Palestine, will never happen again, especially since there are an average of three train derailments per day. Of note, the Norfolk and Southern CEO, Alan Shaw, refused to support the Railway Safety Act of 2023 during the March 9, 2023 Senate hearing on the derailment. Shaw’s lack of commitment to safety improvements is even more staggering in the context of another one of the company’s trains derailing the morning of the hearing. During the hearing, Shaw also refused to commit to covering the healthcare costs of the community members impacted by the toxic fumes released into the air.

So, if it is likely that these events will keep happening and communities will keep facing environmental injustice. What can be done? One solution is to create a national response team within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), called the EPA National Response Center (EPANRC). Within this proposed EPANRC, a Rapid Response Team would be created that is tasked with monitoring potential environmental hazard scenarios and be equipped to respond quickly to various toxin-related emergencies. The proposed EPA Rapid Response Team (EPARRT) would consist of multiple experts with different skills, including toxicologists, epidemiologists, environmental health scientists, public health emergency planning officials, and communication experts.

A model like the one proposed already exists for other federal agencies. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have protocols in place for when contaminations are found in the food supply, such as when E.coli was detected in lettuce. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also have various resources and teams in place to address infectious disease outbreaks. With the increasing number of actual train derailments and potential derailments, now is the time that environmental justice emergency issues are provided equal attention and the same amount of support at the national level, like the ones which already exist at the CDC and FDA.

How would an EPA National Response Center benefit the impacted communities? The guiding principle of the Center would be to protect the communities and empower them with timely and vital information. For example, if such a Center existed for East Palestine, it could have prevented the controlled burn of hazardous material in five train cars. In the Senate hearing, Eric Brewer, the fire chief who was one of the first responders on the scene of the accident, thought the decision to go from burning only one of the train cars to five as shocking and astounding. Scientists argue that the act of burning off the material in those trains released dangerous toxins into the air. Specifically, it could have caused the community to be exposed to dioxin, one of the most harmful toxins to human health.

One of the main themes expressed by the East Palestine residents is frustration with the lack of answers given to them by Norfolk and Southern, state, local and federal governments. The proposed EPA National Response Center (EPANRC) would have a framework for interacting with the community immediately and providing them with the most transparent information on a minute-to-minute basis. The EPANRC would not work in a bubble but instead organize and collaborate with the community leaders directly and immediately to provide them with necessary resources and information.

Another benefit of having the proposed EPANRC would be to address community issues directly and would not rely on the politics of the local, state or federal governments. Also, what is often overlooked, is that environmental disasters do not stay within the state or regional borders. The impact of these types of disasters affects communities that are miles away from the initial impacted community. For example, the train derailment in East Palestine happened right next to the Pennsylvania border. Now residents in Pennsylvania are just as harmed by the toxins, as those in East Palestine, Ohio.

Like the event in East Palestine, when an environmental disaster happens in a small town that does not have the resources to respond to it, that should not mean that the people in that location must suffer the consequences of having toxic air and water in their communities. This proposed EPANRC would make sure that all environmental disasters are handled with the safety of the people as the priority and would safeguard and allocate the resources to make that happen.

The bottom line: No matter where someone lives or what their zip code is everyone deserves access to a clean and safe non-toxic environment.