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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.    

Toxic Tuesdays


Toxic Tuesdays

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


With news of the massive wildfire outside California’s Yosemite Park covering over 18,000 acres of land in June 2022, we wanted to talk about the problems associated with forest fires and pollution. Wildfires are destructive in their own right but are not what one would typically consider a source of pollution. Fires serve many natural purposes – they clear dead organic materials from forests and return valuable nutrients to the soil for instance. But when they reach large proportions and burn uncontrollably, they can release a number of air pollutants that decrease air quality and can cause significant health problems in nearby communities.

A number of air pollutants can be released from wildfires. Heavy metals like lead, zinc, and manganese have been found in elevated levels in the air and in the soil after wildfires, especially in areas that contained man-made buildings and other structures. Nitrogen oxides, a widespread air pollutant that has national air quality standards for indoor air, can be released in significant quantities during a forest fire. These chemicals can cause several respiratory problems such as increased inflammation of the airways, cough and wheezing, and reduced lung function.

Perhaps the most serious health threats from forest fire pollution comes in the form of particulate matter pollution. Particulate matter is a mix of very tiny solid and liquid particles suspended in air. These particles range in size but can be so small that they can enter a person’s lungs and remain lodged deep inside them. The health effects associated with this form of pollution are similar to those of nitrogen oxides. Short term effects such as eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation; coughing; sneezing; runny nose; and shortness of breath are common. In the long-term, severe effects like chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease have been observed.

The drought currently being experienced by California and much of the continental US is fueling fires like the one outside Yosemite, and we can only expect more in the future. Climate change driven by human activity is creating these drought conditions and in turn making wildfires like this one much more common occurrences. The pollution created by these fires in turn will affect those that cannot afford to move to avoid it, who more often than not are low-income and minority communities. We need to be conscious that the emission of greenhouse gasses by industry is not just a problem that will affect us and our children in the future, but is something that is killing people now.

Learn about more toxics

Toxic Tuesdays


Toxic Tuesdays

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


Massive flooding in the state of Kentucky in late July 2022 claimed the lives of 38 people – yet another example of extreme weather events driven by the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels. We touched upon this broad issue in a previous Toxic Tuesday about the wildfires that scorched the state of California not long ago. This edition will analyze the problem of massive flooding from the perspective of toxics.

The flooding in Kentucky on its own has had devastating consequences in the region – personal property was lost or damaged, access to clean water was scarce, and poor sanitary conditions lead to a rise in diseases in the affected population. However, another major problem to the region’s health was not talked about much or even quantified; the problem of potential leaks, spills, or accidental releases of chemicals from facilities that handle or house these chemicals.

CHEJ tried to quantify this problem in the eastern part of Kentucky. This effort, lead by our intern Hunter Marion, utilized EPA’s EJ Screen database to look at the 17 counties in eastern Kentucky that were hit the hardest. Within these counties, we wanted to determine if there was an unusually large number of chemical facilities that could be susceptible to flooding, and how close they were to the population centers. We defined these facilities as:

  • Facilities that are required by law to have Risk Management Plans (RMPs) to guard against chemical leaks or spills due to extreme weather events
  • Hazardous waste facilities (including hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facilities)
  • Underground storage tank facilities
  • Wastewater discharge facilities

Our analysis could not yield a definite number of chemical facilities or their exact distance from the populated areas. However, we were able to use the EJ screen to place each of the 17 affected counties into a percentile of the overall US population with regards to proximity to chemical facilities. This will become clearer with an example.

In the chart above, the population of Bell County (far right) is in the 84th percentile in terms of proximity to an RMP facility. This means that, on average, a person living in Bell County is closer to an RMP facility than 84% of the US population. To put it in another way, only 16% of the US population live closer to an RMP facility than a resident of Bell County, on average.

Similar conclusions can be drawn from the following charts:

We can see across the board that a few counties continuously rank high among proximity to chemical facilities as we have defined them. Bell County is the largest offender with its average resident being closer to hazardous waste facilities than 79% of the rest of the US, closer to underground storage tanks than 64% of the rest of the US, and closer to wastewater discharging facilities than 98% of the US. Clay, Knott, and Harlan counties follow closely.

These relatively high numbers mean that residents in eastern Kentucky where flooding was at its most damaging are comparatively closer to facilities that can spill, leak, or accidentally release dangerous chemicals than the average person in the US. This should alert authorities to do something, given that the area is prone to flooding.

Learn about more toxics

Backyard Talk

Climate Justice in Houston, TX

By Dylan Lenzen

With 2015 marking the hottest year in the historical record, the threat of climate change continues to grow. Not only will the United States and other countries have to move rapidly to try and mitigate climate by eliminating the greenhouse gas emissions produced by our society, but they must also make sure that cities, communities, and individuals throughout the world are protected from the likely effects of the warming that we have already created. Incredibly powerful storms, like hurricane Katrina, are just one type of environmental disaster that we might expect to grow in both frequency and intensity in the future. Without adequate protections, cities and communities in the United States could suffer incredible harm, with potentially billions of dollars in damages from single storms. Much of that harm is likely to be experienced by economically impoverished and minority communities throughout America.

An example of the potential threat that a future of intense storms provides, can be found in Houston, Texas. In a story co-published by Pro-Publica and the Texas Tribune, the authors describe the incredible risks that superstorms pose for the city, even following warnings like Hurricane Ike that many hoped would inspire future safeguards for its citizens. Despite the $30 billion in damages the storm caused in 2008, the city has failed to implement any meaningful protections that have been proposed, such as an “Ike Dike,” that would involve massive floodgates at the start of Galveston Bay to block future storm surges. At the same time, scientists predict that a future perfect storm, with even greater strength than Ike, will occur and is only a matter of time before is realized. In fact, the likelihood that it could occur in any given year is “much higher than your chance of dying in a car crash or in a firearm assault, and 2,400 times as high as your chance of being struck my lightning.

When a perfect storm hits Houston in the future, the greatest damage is likely to result from the Houston Ship Channel, which is lined by one of the world’s highest concentration of oil, gases, and chemicals. A future storm with enough strength to disrupt this region could have major effects to the American economy that depends on these resources. But even more troubling is the potential environmental disaster that could result from a powerful storm. Over 3,400 industrial storage tanks are spread throughout the region, containing oil, gas, and unknown chemicals that scientists say could cause an environmental disaster on par with the BP oil spill. And as the state senator representing much of this industrial region, Sylvia Garcia, states, “My district is working-class, Latino, and [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][has] many people in poverty. Even if we told them to move to safe harbor, they don’t have the car or the way to get there.” So clearly, as is the case in many other environmental disasters or hazards, the burden is overwhelmingly felt by minority and low-income communities.

In conclusion, not only do we need to hold our leaders accountable for mitigating climate change through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to make sure that they are establishing the right safeguards and building new infrastructure that will keep Americans safe from the dangers that climate change poses, especially the most vulnerable communities.

Find out more about hurricane risk in Houston