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One Year Anniversary of the Train Derailment in East Palestine, OH

Photo credit: Abigail Bottar / Ideastream Public Media

By Leila Waid.

It’s hard to believe that it has already been one year since the Norfolk Southern train derailed in the small and quiet community of East Palestine, OH. The community members have faced uncertainty and fear of how their health has been impacted by the exposure to toxins, such as vinyl chloride, present at the burn site. Burning vinyl chloride can produce dioxins, a chemical that poses immense danger to human health. Over the year, many residents have spoken out about the health risks they are experiencing, such as increased asthma in their children, skin rashes, bleeding from the ears, and new diagnoses of cancer. Also, residents have pointed out how the train derailment has impacted them financially. One of the residents, Ashley McCollum, talked with ABC News about how she has been displaced from her home for the past year. Unfortunately, Norfolk Southern, who had been paying for her and her family to stay in a hotel, said they would no longer fund her accommodations. Now Ashley and other displaced residents have a hard choice to make – return to the community they believe will make them sick or come up with alternative living arrangements with their own finances.


This harsh abandonment that many residents have experienced feels all the more infuriating when considering how much Norfolk Southern has spent on lobbying. According to Public Citizen, “the company and its subsidiaries spent $2,340,000 lobbying the federal government in 2023 – up 30% from the $1,800,000 it spent the year before.” Interestingly, no new railroad safety legislation was passed by Congress after the Norfolk Southern train derailed. One would imagine that when such a severe accident occurs that threatens the health of thousands of people, the policymakers would immediately work in a bipartisan manner to make sure that such an accident never happens again. Notedly, both the House and the Senate introduced bills to increase railroad safety, but a year later, those bills have not moved forward. House of Representatives member Marcy Kaptur directly connects the lack of action by Congress on the bills to the lobbying being carried out by railroad companies, such as Norfolk Southern.


Without stricter regulation, who knows when and where the next derailment might occur and which American town could be the next East Palestine.

Frustrated by the lack of answers and support, the impacted community in East Palestine created the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment. One of the most recent actions the Council undertook was a “ceremony of solidarity,” an event held on the first anniversary of the train derailment to raise awareness about the suffering the community is still going through. The Council wanted to showcase to the country that what happened in their community could happen anywhere in the country.


The ceremony was conducted in partnership with We Refuse to Die, an environmental justice campaign utilizing art to communicate the message. Artists and activists have a long history of working together effectively to enact change. By moving people emotionally, artists can tap into the feelings and emotions of individuals that motivate them toward change. In this case, the campaign was focused on showcasing that, just because individuals in East Palestine may have been forgotten about by the railroad industry and politicians, they are still here and will continue to fight until they can rebuild what was stolen from them by the explosion.

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Toxic Tuesdays

Acknowledging the Limits to Assessing Low Dose Mixtures of Toxic Chemicals​

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Acknowledging the Limits to Assessing Low Dose Mixtures of Toxic Chemicals

Approximately 1 year ago a Norfolk Southern train carrying more than 150 cars, many of which containing toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, OH. Thirty-eight of the train cars derailed and a decision was made by Norfolk Southern to burn the contents of 5 tanker cars containing vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals. This unleashed a huge black cloud of particulates that enveloped the surrounding neighborhoods and farms in both OH and PA.

Immediately after the burn, people in East Palestine began reporting adverse health symptoms including, headaches, nose bleeds, skin rashes, central nervous symptoms, thyroid problems and more. These and other adverse health problems have continued to plague the residents of this rural midwestern town.

EPA responded immediately by telling people that everything was alright, that there was no cause for alarm. EPA’s testing found no levels of “concern.” But the people in East Palestine could not accept this narrative because they knew things were not right. They knew the health effects they were suffering were real. They knew that EPA was not telling them the truth.

If EPA were honest with the people at East Palestine, they would have told them that they don’t understand why people are continuing to report so many illnesses while their data tells them that there should not be any adverse health problems in the community.

But if EPA did that, if they acknowledged 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 these uncertainties. Action 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, getting the health care they need and moving on with lives.

It is clear from the situation in East Palestine that very little is known about how people respond to exposures to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals. It’s time to acknowledge that the scientific understanding does not exist to explain what is happening to the health of the people in East Palestine or other communities exposed to toxic chemicals. It’s time to recognize that we cannot rely on traditional toxicology to answer the questions people have about their exposures to low level chemical mixtures.

In an editorial about evaluating low dose exposures, Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, described the traditional approach to evaluating health risks as “antiquated” and said that it needs to be replaced by a “better understanding of the actual characteristics of modern environmental chemicals.” Birnbaum went on to say that “It is time to start the conversation between environmental health scientists, toxicologists, and risk assessors to determine how our understanding of low doses effects and non-monotonic dose responses influence the way risk assessments are performed for chemicals with endocrine disrupting activities.”

It’s time to acknowledge that the tools we have are not able to answer the questions people ask about their exposures to toxic chemicals and give people the relief they are asking or, whether it’s cleanup, relocation, health care or something else.   

This is exactly what the government did for the Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange; for the atomic bomb victims exposed to radiation fallout; for the 9/11 first responders in New York City; for the soldiers exposed to burn-pit smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan; and for the marines and their families at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina who drank contaminated water.

In each of these instances, the government recognized that the science linking exposure and health outcomes was impossible to assess and instead of requiring proof of cause and effect, they said, enough, we need to take care of our own and moved to a presumptive scientific approach that allowed veterans and first responders to get health care and other compensation. We should do the same for the people of East Palestine and in hundreds of other communities that have been exposed to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals.

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Cyanide

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It’s Time to Do Right by the People in East Palestine, OH – and Elsewhere

Photo credit: CNN

By Stephen Lester.

Nearly 10 months ago, a Norfolk Southern train with more than 150 cars, many of which contained toxic chemicals, derailed in East Palestine, OH. Thirty-eight of the train cars derailed and a decision was made by Norfolk Southern to burn the contents of 5 tanker cars containing vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals. This unleashed a huge black cloud full of particulates that enveloped the surrounding neighborhoods and farms in both OH and PA.

Immediately after the burn, people in East Palestine began reporting adverse health symptoms including headaches, nose bleeds, skin rashes, central nervous symptoms, thyroid problems and more. These and other adverse health problems have continued to plague the residents of this rural midwestern town.

EPA immediately responded by telling people that everything was alright and there was no cause for alarm. EPA’s testing found no levels of “concern.” But the people in East Palestine could not accept this narrative because they knew things were not right. They knew the health effects they were suffering from were real. They knew that EPA was not telling them the truth.

If EPA were honest with the people at East Palestine, they would have told them that they didn’t understand why people were continuing to report so many illnesses while their data told them otherwise. But if EPA did 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 these uncertainties. Actions like paying for relocations so that they can stop being exposed to the toxic chemicals that are still in the air and getting the health care they need to move on with their lives.

The people in East Palestine deserve better. So do hundreds of other communities across this country where people have similarly been exposed to low levels mixtures of toxic chemicals. It is clear from the situation in East Palestine that very little is known about how people respond to chemical exposures, especially to low level mixtures. This is evident when the EPA and other public health agencies who rely on traditional toxicology and risk assessment are telling the people of East Palestine that everything is safe when it clearly is not.

It’s time to acknowledge that the scientific understanding does not exist to explain what is happening to the health of the people in East Palestine. It’s time to recognize that we cannot rely on traditional toxicology to answer the questions people have about their exposures to low level chemical mixtures. It’s time to do the right thing by the people in East Palestine and by hundreds of communities across the U.S. where people are being exposed to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals. It’s time to acknowledge that the tools we have are not able to answer the questions people raise about their exposure to toxic chemicals and give people the relief they are asking for, whether it’s cleanup, relocation, health care or something else.   

It’s what the government did for the Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange; for the atomic bomb victims exposed to radiation fallout; for the 9/11 first responders in New York City; for the soldiers exposed to burn-pit smoke in Iran and Afghanistan and other overseas locations; and for the Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina who drank contaminated water. Do the people of East Palestine deserve anything less than the soldiers and first responders who protect this country?

In each of these instances, the government recognized that the science linking exposure and health outcomes was incomplete and instead of requiring proof of cause and effect, they said, “Enough, we will take care of our own.” They moved to a presumptive scientific approach that allowed veterans and first responders to  health care and other compensation. We should do the same for the people of East Palestine and in hundreds of other communities that have been exposed to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals.

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Toxic Tuesdays

How Individual Sensitivity Affects Toxicity

Toxic Tuesdays

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

How Individual Sensitivity Affects Toxicity

We previously addressed individual variability and how it affects a person’s response to toxic chemicals. Another important factor in toxicology is a person’s individual sensitivity to chemicals. How sensitive a person is to chemical exposure helps determine how susceptible or vulnerable they are to toxic chemicals. Several factors determine how sensitive a person is including age, sex, health, genetics, diet, lifestyle, preexisting conditions and previous environmental exposures. While some people are more sensitive to chemical exposures than others, there is no clear definition of what sensitivity is or what it means. This is partially since so little is understood about the human response to toxic chemicals, especially to low level mixtures of chemicals.

Because of this uncertainty, there is no generally accepted definition of sensitivity. Nicholas Ashford and Claudia Miller describe the various meanings of the term. In traditional toxicology, sensitivity has been defined as individuals who require relatively lower doses to induce a particular response. These individuals are considered more sensitive than people who require relatively higher doses to experience the same response. The distribution of this population is described by the classic bell curve where the sensitive and resilient populations are found in the tails of the curve. Most people fall into this response category. In traditional medicine, sensitivity has been defined as individuals who have a significant and rapid immune-mediated response to an allergen or agent. In this population, some individuals, described as chemically sensitive, have a striking immune response to an allergen or agent, while non-allergic individuals do not, even at high doses. Classic allergens include ragweed or bee venom, but also include chemicals such as nickel or toluene diisocyanate (TDI).

In recent years, a growing population of people have expressed an entirely different sensitivity response. These are people who have developed multiple chemical sensitivities. Ashford and Miller found that people who have developed multiple chemical sensitivities may exhibit a third and entirely different type of sensitivity. These authors stated this about people with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS): “Their health problems often (but not always) appear to originate with some acute or traumatic exposure, after which the triggering of symptoms and observed sensitivities occur at very low levels of chemical exposure. The inducing chemical or substances may or may not be the same as the substances that thereafter provoke or ‘trigger’ responses.” Unlike classical toxicological or immune mediated responses, people with MCS sensitivity respond in a two-step process of an initial exposure event followed by a second triggering exposure. Much still needs to be understood about this third wave of sensitivity.  

Another factor that influences a person’s sensitivity is the body’s reserve capacity. Researchers have speculated that a chemical exposure may affect the reserve capacity of the body without causing an immediate adverse effect. However, when there are subsequent exposures, the body becomes unable to compensate for the additional stress and toxicity develops.

The science behind what is known about how people respond to chemical exposures, especially to low level mixtures of chemicals, is highly complex and not well understood. We know that people exposed to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals, like the people in East Palestine, OH, the site of that horrific train derailment and subsequent intentional burn of vinyl chloride, continue to suffer adverse health effects despite reassurances from EPA and public health agencies who are relying on traditional toxicology and risk assessments. Perhaps the people in East Palestine have developed a unique chemical sensitivity much like the third wave described by Ashford and Miller. So as their exposures continue during the ongoing cleanup, their chemical sensitivity and the subsequent adverse health responses are not what would be predicted by traditional toxicology or medical models. 

This is an important consideration to consider in East Palestine because it is clear that we do not understand what is happening to the health of the people there. It’s time to recognize that we cannot rely solely on traditional toxicology to address the questions people have about exposures to low level chemical mixtures.

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Cyanide

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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 awhelton@purdue.edu.

Sincerely,

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 (eenews.net)

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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. 

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Toxic Tuesdays

Isobutylene

Toxic Tuesdays

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

Isobutylene

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.

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Cyanide

Cyanide is a chemical usually found in compounds with other chemicals. Cyanide compounds can be

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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.”