On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train derailed causing a nearly three dozen train car pileup in East Palestine, Ohio. 11 of the cars involved in the pileup contained hazardous materials, one of the materials being vinyl chloride. When inhaled in small doses, vinyl chloride may cause irritation to respiratory systems, shortness of breath, dizziness and headaches, all of which have been reported by East Palestinian residents. However, chronic exposure can cause cancer in the liver, brain and lungs as well as leukemia and lymphoma cancers. As a result of the crash, East Palestine may now be facing chronic exposure. Let's look at why.
After the derailment, some of the cars caught on fire. Fearing an explosion, officials evacuated residents to perform a controlled burn. Residents and other concerned citizens across the U.S. are questioning the safety of this decision: if inhaling vinyl chloride causes short and long-term damage, why was it burned for people to inhale? Why were these same people sent back to their homes only two days after?
The EPA continues to do daily testing on water and air quality, thus far saying it is safe to drink and that, “to date, there have been no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride (in the air) above levels of concern.” Since residents have returned, however, there have still been complaints about irritation and a strong chemical smell.
If human concerns weren’t worrisome enough, the wildlife and livestock reaction to this disaster is just as – if not more – unsettling. On Feb. 15, the director of Ohio's Department of Natural Resources, Mary Mertz, estimated 3,500 fish were found dead in local streams and waterways. An East Palestine resident, Luke Glaven, released a TikTok of a creek two miles from the derailment with several fish dead. Amanda Breshears, who lives nearly 10 miles away from East Palestine, reported her chickens mysteriously dying. In an interview with local news reporters, she explained her chickens were perfectly healthy before the burn, but after they were all found dead in their cages. These are not the only complaints, as several families have reported illness or death in family pets and livestock.
Perhaps what we should all be fearing most is much greater: the government wanting the situation to be hush-hush. Currently, there are stories breaking all over the country about what’s going on in East Palestine, but initially there was limited media coverage beyond the local level. Evan Lambert, a NewsNation correspondent, was arrested for criminal trespass and disorderly conduct at a press conference covering the train derailment. He was simply doing a live news report covering the situation. Luckily, Lambert has since been released and the charges against him have been dropped. It’s scary to see a reporter arrested for peacefully doing his job in the midst of what some are calling possibly the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.
This also would not be the first time government agencies falsified results surrounding environmental health crises. In Flint, Michigan's water disaster, for example, residents complained about the water smelling and tasting weird, yet were assured their water was perfectly safe for months. However, in June 2015, an EPA worker leaked his memo expressing concern for high levels of lead in the water and flawed sampling procedures from the Michigan Department of Environment, or MDEQ. MDEQ used methods like pre-flushing water before testing it, which doesn’t get an accurate sample, and tested for the results they wanted to avoid extra work according to the book “What The Eyes Don’t See” by Mona Hanna-Attisha. Flint residents trusted these environmental health workers who didn’t do their job correctly and now they face serious adverse health effects. If it’s happened before, it could happen again.
East Palestinians should be wary of what officials say and the tests they release. The environment is clearly telling a different story and human health is directly correlated to environmental health. I will continue to keep East Palestine in my thoughts and I sympathize with everyone affected by this tragedy.
Taylor Henninger is a sophomore studying journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of The Post. Do you agree? Tell Taylor by emailing her at email@example.com.