Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Photo courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3 left residents in Ohio and Pennsylvania worried about the impact on their health, drinking water and the environment. To help address their concerns, Carnegie Science Center put together a panel of public health, environmental health and chemistry experts.

The free Society Science webinar on Feb. 23 was hosted by Brad Peroney Jr., director of community planning for the Science Center. He was joined by Associate Professor James Fabisiak and Assistant Professor Peng Gao, both experts in environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh, and Juliane Beier, assistant professor of gastroenterology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

The main question was whether the derailment will impact the Pittsburgh area.

Fabisiak said Pittsburgh is a safe distance from the derailment, and that the hazardous effects in East Palestine would have zero to minimal impact in Pittsburgh. Gao agreed.

“As Jim said, I think Pittsburgh is too far away to be considered” to have been affected, Gao said.

But they said residents in Beaver and Butler counties aren’t so lucky.

Fabisiak said that residents living in the two counties should test their water to determine whether it is contaminated. Beier recommended that individuals there invest in a carbon water filter at least until test results show the water is clean.

“If you’re in the sort of intermediate distance and on municipal water, there’s probably an awareness for those municipal water companies to be testing the water for what might potentially be in there,” said Fabisiak.

“Depending if you’re in Ohio, in Pennsylvania, have your water tested, and then you might have a little bit better idea about whether there’s something in there or at least that it’s safe. If you’re even a little bit closer then I might even consider routine testing or some sort of testing over time.”

Beier, who focuses on vinyl chloride, discussed the chemical’s impact on long-term health. While she said low levels of vinyl chloride exposure can increase stages of liver disease and the formation of tumors, she is unsure if the amount leaked in East Palestine is enough to affect the health of residents. 

“I know it’s really frustrating to tell you an uncertain answer because we are all scientists,” said Gao. “We can’t make conclusions without data and the result. So we can only provide you with potential risk information regarding what has happened.”

In the latest development, River Valley Organizing (RVO), along with over 100 other organizations from Ohio and Pennsylvania, sent a joint letter to the EPA on March 13 suggesting recommendations for testing for dioxins in East Palestine, Ohio, and other communities impacted by the Norfolk Southern train derailment disaster.

The letter says testing “should be conducted to improve transparency, rebuild public trust, and comprehensively address possible releases of dioxins from the disaster.”

RVO composed the letter after a community meeting attended by more than 200 residents and a consultation with environmental experts.

RVO also is requesting home relocation for those who want it, independent environmental testing, ongoing medical monitoring, safe disposal of toxic waste, and for the responsible parties to cover the cost of testing.

Although the EPA has ordered testing for dioxins, it has yet to share the plan with the impacted communities.

Jason Phox is a journalist in the Pittsburgh area sharing important information with the people of the Steel City. He enjoys writing, photography, and mostly comic books.