Q&A: East Palestine train derailment

CPH experts discuss the incident’s lasting impact on environmental and human health

Kristen Mitchell
two people in white personal protective equipment and purple gloves.

Members of the Ohio National Guard prepare to assess hazards in East Palestine on Feb. 7. (Photo: Ohio National Guard)

A train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio captured national attention earlier this month when a toxic chemical release and massive fire forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes. Residents have been able to return, but questions remain about the incident’s lasting impact on the environment and human health.

Experts from the College of Public Health discuss the public health concerns that need to be addressed now and for years to come.

What are the immediate public health concerns that need to be addressed in the short term?  

Mike Bisesi, professor of Environmental Health Sciences and vice dean for academic affairs and academic administration: The first three days was likely the most hazardous time for exposure and potential for adverse effects. During this period there was the most dramatic and obvious release of some of the chemicals being transported — and it appears mostly the vinyl chloride — plus the combusting chemical products from the initial burning tank cars followed by the controlled burn, into the air, on to the soil and into surface water.  

Fortunately, the evacuation helped to reduce those likely exposed as well as the magnitude of exposure during this period. Reports of land animals dying or sick is likely the result of those organisms being present during the intense initial three days or so. Most of the humans evacuated and did not experience the same intensity. Continued use of bottled water for drinking and culinary purposes is encouraged to be extra cautious. 

Early response included a controlled burn of chemicals. How does that affect air quality and is it safe for local residents?

Olorunfemi Adetona, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences: Acute exposures might not be so much a concern since residents were evacuated in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Contaminants released into the air would have dispersed from the immediate areas surrounding following the burns. This will reduce the concentrations of contaminants in these areas and downwind locations. Continuing air monitoring prior to and after the return of residents should ensure they are not being exposed to hazardous levels of the contaminants.

Groundwater, sediment and soil contamination in and around East Palestine may require more attention going forward. These should also be monitored to track the movement of the contaminants in the environment and prevent exposures in less apparent situations.

How do we know it’s safe to drink water here in Columbus and throughout the region?

Mark Weir, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences: For Columbus, 85% of our source water is from three reservoirs — the Hoover, Griggs and O'Shaughnessy. The remaining 15% comes from surrounding groundwater supplies. Since the water flowing into our reservoirs are not impacted directly from the East Palestine site it can be assumed we won’t be impacted.

However, this is less clear when speaking of the larger Ohio context. The Ohio EPA conducted regular sampling from the treated drinking water, not the aquifers (groundwater) that are the source of East Palestine’s drinking water. Since the trench was not maintained for very long, there is the possibility that this contamination to the groundwater is low. However, those chemicals that did experience fallout from the burning may be able to impact the surrounding waters with unknown impacts on the groundwater.

Environmental contamination never stays in one location unless maintained through environmental health or engineering controls. Monitoring only the treated water is a small snapshot of the exposures that East Palestine residents and other impacted populations are experiencing. It is our job as health and environmental professionals to address both short-term and long-term exposures and risks even well after the disaster has passed into memory for those who don’t reside in East Palestine. 

Can you explain how the train derailment is an environmental justice issue?

Darryl B. Hood, professor of Environmental Health Sciences: When you look at the demographics of East Palestine, it may not resemble conventional, traditional environmental justice communities with respect to race, but it bears a heavier burden regarding potential insults from the environment than mainstream communities.

East Palestine has more railroad traffic carrying toxic chemicals than, for example, anywhere in Columbus. The system was designed that way because you don’t want them to go through heavily populated areas. Those individuals, by virtue of where they live, are in a vulnerable census tract. 

What are the long-term public health concerns for East Palestine and neighboring communities? 

Bisesi: If eventually it is determined that the groundwater is contaminated with vinyl chloride — there remains much uncertainty at this point — long-term exposure via consuming the water may increase the risk of corresponding adverse impacts to organ systems, including liver cancer, as one example. If the groundwater is contaminated, that means that the overlying soil is contaminated as well.

The level of concern remains uncertain since the chemicals involved are not as toxic or environmentally persistent as many other chemicals that would have contributed to a much worse situation. This is not intended to minimize concern or ignore the fact that East Palestine is more contaminated today than it was Feb. 2, however, more data is needed to determine if there will be long-term contamination and environmental exposure hazards.

How should those long-term concerns be addressed or monitored by public health officials and others?  

Bisesi: Coordinated multiagency, transparent communication of what is being done and why is critical. This includes release of sampling and analytical results and interpretations. Outdoor activities should be limited until the area is more comprehensibly characterized for the type and level of contamination.

In addition, collecting some baseline blood and urine sampling data from humans as well as some domestic, livestock and wild animals with subsequent longitudinal sampling and analysis moving forward will help to determine if there are associated biomarkers of exposure, biomarkers of effects, or disease.

This will require an approach integrating and coordinating environmental, human, animal and plant sampling and analytical surveillance to generate a comprehensive profile that will help inform the type and level of hazard, and potential for associated risk of adverse effects. 

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About The Ohio State University College of Public Health

The Ohio State University College of Public Health is a leader in educating students, creating new knowledge through research, and improving the livelihoods and well-being of people in Ohio and beyond.  The College's divisions include biostatistics, environmental health sciences, epidemiology, health behavior and health promotion, and health services management and policy.   It is ranked 22nd among all colleges of public health in the U.S. by U.S. News and World Report, and also includes the top 8-ranked MHA degree program.  The college’s epidemiology specialty was ranked 19th. The College provides leadership and expertise for Ohio and the world through its Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Evaluation Studies (HOPES) and Center for Public Health Practice (CPHP).