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Examining the public health response to last year's train derailment in Ohio

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tomorrow marks a year since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border, releasing toxic chemicals. In the weeks that followed, doctors and health officials were trying to figure out what to do about residents who were sick from possible chemical exposure. Julie Grant from Pennsylvania's environmental news show The Allegheny Front looks at what they did and did not do, and what could be the long-term health consequences for the community.

JULIE GRANT: It was around nine in the evening on February 3 when the Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine. Shawna Lewis and her family live near the tracks where dozens of smoldering rail cars released toxic chemicals and flames lit up the sky.

SHAWNA LEWIS: My daughter was panicked, and it's just scary, you know? You don't know if the whole town is going to blow up. You just don't know.

GRANT: Later, residents were evacuated and a huge plume of black smoke filled the air as officials conducted a controlled burn of vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, in an effort to avoid a massive explosion. From the very beginning, people complained of rashes, headaches and swollen, itchy eyes. Many health officials weren't sure if they should test for chemical exposures. Because of political wrangling, it took two weeks for the Centers for Disease Control to arrive in East Palestine. That's well past the point of acute chemical exposure for a toxin like vinyl chloride.

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GRANT: A webinar held by the Pennsylvania Department of Health was just one of the steps health officials took during the year to try to calm the health concerns of residents. Dr. Mike Lynch, medical toxicologist at the Pittsburgh Poison Center, told area doctors that breath or urine tests for chemical exposure were not clinically useful and not recommended for patients.

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MICHAEL LYNCH: With confidence, you can tell them that there is not a chemical test that they should be seeking either from you or elsewhere at this time.

GRANT: But some public health experts say not conducting widespread biological testing was a loss for the community. Dr. Maureen Lichtveld is dean of the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh. She says health responders should gather as much data as possible, including samples of people's breath, blood or urine, when there's an emergency.

MAUREEN LICHTVELD: So if we're not quick enough or early enough to capture that, we're losing the opportunity to measure directly what's happening in the people.

GRANT: Federal health officials did conduct an assessment of chemical exposures. In that ACE survey of 700 people in Ohio and Pennsylvania, residents reported difficulty breathing, headaches and other ailments. One of those residents, Zsuzsa Gyenes, has been frustrated and says more needs to be done. Her 9-year-old son's urine test conducted a couple of months after the derailment showed markers for vinyl chloride.

ZSUZSA GYENES: They came in and said these ACE surveys showed that you guys are sick and, yeah, the symptoms match chemical exposure. And then we're just not doing anything about it.

GRANT: Some researchers are now working on small health studies in the community. However, Molly Jacobs says that's not the same as a coordinated health response. Jacobs is an environmental epidemiologist who works with the Cancer and Environment Network of Southwestern Pennsylvania. She says people in East Palestine need a health registry, like one created in New York after 9/11, to answer questions about any health problems that arise and their connection to chemical exposures.

MOLLY JACOBS: Is my infertility that I'm experiencing, are the birth defects of my child, is my cancer related to this train disaster?

GRANT: And others in East Palestine want to know, who will be responsible if those health problems actually do occur years later? Those are public health questions residents may put to President Biden when he visits East Palestine this month.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Grant in Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julie Grant