There are growing reports of health concerns from residents following the chemical explosion and toxic train derailment that upended the community of East Palestine, Ohio over three weeks ago.
Some residents this month say they have been diagnosed with bronchitis, lung issues, and rashes that doctors and nurses suspect are linked to the chemical exposure.
50 train carriages, 10 of which were carrying hazardous materials, derailed in East Palestine on February 3rd. Hundreds of residents had to be evacuated as a result of the controlled release of poisonous gasses that was carried out on February 6th to stop an explosion.
East Palestine residents were able to safely return home on February 8th despite the reports of hundreds of dead fish in the Ohio river near East Palestine and residents complaining of headaches and illness since the derailment.
Environmental activist Erin Brockovich urged residents during a town hall meeting on Friday, to document any health effects they are experiencing. She advised the residents to keep records of information and to be conscious of how they and their children are feeling.
“You know how you feel. … You know if you’re sick. You know if you smell something. You know if the water is a funny color,” Brockovich said.
The activist cautioned residents saying “you want to be heard, but you’re going to be told it’s safe; you’re going to be told not to worry. That’s just rubbish because you’re going to worry. Communities want to be seen and heard. Health and environmental risks will remain for years.”
“These chemicals take time to move in the water. You’re going to need groundwater monitoring. People on well water: You really need to be on alert. They’re going to need to implement soil vapor intrusion modeling. Believe us. It’s coming,” Brockovich said.
Brockovich counseled worried locals to trust their instincts. She said moments like this can feel like the “biggest gaslight” of people’s lives, and she told them that it won’t be a “quick fix,” but a “long game.”
“I’ve learned in communities over and over again, they can handle the truth. Whether it scares them, or they don’t want to hear it. What they can’t handle is a mistruth, being misled,” Brockovich said.
Mikal Watts, an attorney, joined Brockovich in urging people to be tested as soon as possible.
“I’m begging you, for your own good, go get your blood and your urine tested now. If it says you don’t have anything, you have peace of mind. If it says you have something, you now have an objective, medical basis,” Watts said.
The Ohio Department of Health created a temporary medical clinic earlier last week as residents continue to report symptoms such as nausea, headaches, skin irritation, and other ailments. Yet, individuals have complained that the facility falls short because it does not provide blood tests or other types of health exams.
Water specialist and founder of the water development company Integrated Resource Management, Bob Bowcock, expressed his worries that toxins would enter the city’s drinking water earlier than anticipated.
“The state of Ohio has determined that groundwater protection from the surface contamination in this community is zero. I’ve never seen a zero. Groundwater is very shallow here. If the chemicals are already at this location, we’ve got a real problem,” Bowcock said.
While what happened in East Palestine may have shocked the community, Watts noted that trains carrying dangerous cargo is not a recent issue. Watts talked about dangerous materials including vinyl chloride that burned under controlled conditions when Norfolk Southern burned the train carriages. He mentioned that there had been an estimated 3,397 railway derailments worldwide in recent years, causing $378 million in losses.
“We live in a society, for better or for worse, that chooses to ship the most deadly, the most toxic, the most dangerous chemicals ever made by man in rail cars right through populated cities,” Watts said.
According to Watts, Norfolk-Southern experienced 770 hazardous material-related train car derailments last year. This represents a sharp increase from the 79 comparable accidents in 2012, he noted.
Brockovich said that instances such as these have occurred worldwide, from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the water issue in Flint, Michigan.
“We’ve got failing infrastructure, companies with poor corporate models that put all of us at risk and continue to just think once we poison a community, it’s just going to magically go away. We often find out five and 10 years down the road after you were told it was safe,” Brockovich said.
On Wednesday, former president Donald Trump brought water and cleaning supplies to the community. On Thursday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg arrived and expressed regret for not visiting earlier. He also echoed calls for Norfolk Southern to be held responsible and for the avoidance of future rail accidents.
The Pennsylvania Governor’s Office referred a criminal matter to the attorney last week, who will look into Norfolk Southern to look for any evidence of illegal wrongdoing. The Governor took action after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that the corporation would be responsible for covering all remediation expenses.
The National Transportation Safety Board‘s preliminary report, which they made public on Thursday, provided a more thorough account of the events leading up to the tragedy. According to the investigation, hot box detectors monitored the train’s problematic axle’s rising temperature before the derailment.
According to the Ohio Department of Health, their medical clinic for resident health concerns will be open at least through March 4th.
– – –
Hannah Poling is a lead reporter at The Ohio Star and The Star News Network. Follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahPoling1. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Erin Brockovich in East Paletine Talking to a Local Citizen” by Erin Brockovich.