How Bad Is the East Palestine Water & Air Contamination?

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How worried should we be about East Palestine water contamination? Could the air quality also be affected by the Ohio train derailment?

Following the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment on February 3, a controlled burn released many of these chemicals into the environment in East Palestine, Ohio. Upon taking daily samples of the water and air, the EPA insists that neither poses any danger to local residents, but not everyone is convinced.

Keep reading to learn about the conflicting claims over air and water contamination in East Palestine.

East Palestine Water & Air Contamination: Should We Worry?

Following the derailment of 38 rail cars carrying hazardous chemicals near East Palestine, Ohio, conflicting reports have emerged regarding the harms—or lack thereof—that these chemicals pose to public health and the environment. While some commentators have described the East Palestine derailment as Chernobyl 2.0, and many residents have reported feeling ill, U.S. regulators argue that East Palestine water contamination and air contamination have been minimal. This article examines the conflicting claims.

The East Palestine Train Derailment

On February 3, a 150-car, Norfolk Southern freight train carrying vinyl chloride—a hazardous, flammable chemical—derailed in Ohio, sparking a massive, days-long fire and sending toxic gasses into the air. The crash left some 5,000 East Palestine residents and countless more metropolitan area residents within 40 miles, under air and water contamination alerts. According to federal officials, this train was not regulated as a “high-hazard flammable train.”

Rail unions say the East Palestine crash isn’t a one-off, but the canary in the coalmine. For years they’ve sounded the alarm that freight rail companies’ profit-focused, “speed over safety” mentality and drastic workforce cuts would result in exactly this kind of disaster. 

In response to the derailment, Governor Mike DeWine approved a controlled burn of some of these chemicals on February 6 to prevent a potentially catastrophic explosion. Though the controlled burn may have been the lesser of two evils, it was far from harmless: Burning vinyl chloride releases dangerous hydrogen chloride, which can irritate the skin, eyes, and throat, as well as dioxins, a toxic compound that can cause cancer and damage immune systems.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Assessment 

According to the EPA’s assessment of contamination in East Palestine, however, water sampling and air screening show no cause for concern. It reported that no contaminants related to the derailment were detected in the East Palestine public water system; Governor DeWine and EPA Administrator Michael Regan even drank from a resident’s tap to show as much. Similarly, as of March 3, air sampling from 593 homes returned safe levels of all chemicals that were tested for. 

Because of the controlled burn and soil removal near the derailment site, the EPA noted that residents nearby may smell chemical odors from the site. But, it said these odors are innocuous, since many of the chemicals have odor thresholds at concentrations far below levels dangerous to humans. So, although the smoke plume from the burn was frightening, the EPA maintains that local residents aren’t in danger.

Independent Testing Confirms the EPA’s Assessment

In addition to the EPA’s testing, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro called for independent air and water testing within a two-mile radius of the derailment site. Thus far, these tests have corroborated the EPA’s reports, as air and water quality readings haven’t revealed anything concerning. In a similar vein, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection tested private wells in a one-mile radius of the derailment site, finding no signs of contamination.

Other independent scientists from Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon did find higher than normal levels of acrolein, a chemical that can irritate the skin and respiratory tract. However, acrolein levels were still below the minimal risk-level for short-term exposure.

Health and Environmental Issues in East Palestine

Yet, accounts from East Palestine point to risks of air and water contamination. For instance, an urgent care facility nearby reports seeing five to 10 patients daily with symptoms of chemical exposure, such as burning in the lungs and eyes. In a similar vein, over half of the employees of a nearby manufacturing company suffered symptoms of chemical bronchitis, such as coughing and wheezing, upon returning to work after the derailment. Though it’s impossible to definitively link these cases to chemical exposure, the symptoms are consistent with such a diagnosis. 

Moreover, the health impacts aren’t just limited to humans; chemicals that leaked into nearby waterways killed an estimated 43,000 fish in a 5-mile radius. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources reported that none of these species were endangered or threatened, and they even observed that fish have been returning to the waterways in the meantime. 

For its part, the EPA has responded that, although exposure to the released chemicals can cause the acute symptoms experienced by local residents, it’s unlikely to cause long-term damage. Additionally, regarding the multitude of dead fish, an EPA representative noted that these chemicals are lethal only to fish, not humans.

What’s Next for East Palestine?

As for Norfolk Southern, its CEO has committed to donating $6.5 million to those affected by the derailment. But that might only be the beginning of its financial woes, as lawyers have filed upwards of a dozen lawsuits on behalf of afflicted residents. 

Moreover, experts caution that chemical residues from vinyl chloride, such as dioxins, can cause water contamination to the local water supply in East Palestine years down the road. It might be necessary to continue monitoring the East Palestine water system for years to come.

How Bad Is the East Palestine Water & Air Contamination?

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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