From a window in her house, Tamara Freeze stood and watched a fire spreading along a line of train cars across the street from her house in East Palestine, Ohio. It was a Friday night, February 3, and she’d just gotten home from work, at the Family Dollar in the middle of town.
“It was almost like if you pass by a really, really bad accident or like a big tanker that spilled in the middle of the freeway,” she said. “You don’t want to watch, but you can’t help but watch.”
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She and her husband, Nelson, were mainly worried about casualties from the derailment–luckily there were no injuries. They weren’t thinking about what was in some of those tank cars.
Nelson heard that night they were carrying ‘vinyl flooring’ – that didn’t seem so bad.
“Vinyl flooring…I’ve seen it burn,” he said. “That gives off black smoke. But then I heard it was vinyl chloride. And then I said, ‘Oh, no, that is not good.’”
When they evacuated that weekend, their cat got spooked and hid; they had to leave him in the house.
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On Monday, February 6 Norfolk Southern decided to burn the contents of five derailed tankers of vinyl chloride. The company said that would prevent a ‘catastrophic’ explosion of the tank cars. It would also prevent the vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen, from spilling onto the ground.
It may have also created another problem. Burning chemicals with chlorine in them, like vinyl chloride, can create dioxins–toxic chemicals that can linger in the environment for years.
The EPA has maintained there is a “low probability” of this happening, based on its sampling for “indicator chemicals” that it says would signal the presence of dioxins in East Palestine.
Scientists, however, say it’s likely there was at least some dioxin produced by the fire. Peng Gao, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh, said there was a “high chance” dioxins and other harmful toxins were produced in the fire. He said dioxin forms when vinyl chloride undergoes “incomplete combustion” and that it’s likely some of the chemical wasn’t entirely combusted in the fire.
“We highly suspect these chemicals were generated,” Gao said. “I definitely do not recommend the residents consume the food produced close to the accident.”
After resisting community pressure to test for dioxins, the EPA says it’s begun doing so, though environmental groups called for the agency to be more transparent with what it finds. The Pennsylvania DEP is also sampling soil for dioxins in Beaver County, just across the border from East Palestine, this week.
Nelson Freeze says the testing is necessary because he wants to know if staying in his house, which his parents bought in 1971, is going to make his family sick.
“We need to know because the longer we’re here without information could potentially be the longer we’re being exposed to something that is going to hurt us,” he said.
A long-lived chemical
Dioxins are a broad range of chemicals; the EPA says there are hundreds of them. They are widespread in the environment from both industrial and natural sources. They can be formed during combustion, including during waste incineration or when wood, coal, or oil are burned.
And they pose serious health consequences, scientists say.
“Dioxins are famous for being extremely toxic organic chemicals and also bio-accumulative, which means that when you’re exposed to them, they tend to stick around in your body,” said Carla Ng, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. “Even if the levels in the environment are quite low, they can build up over time.”
The reason, Ng says, is that dioxins are incredibly durable, owing to a strong affinity between chlorine and carbon atoms. So they last a long time.
They also prefer fat to water; so they cluster in the fat cells of animals like humans and fish.
“Things that are water soluble are really easy to get rid of in your body because you can just urinate them out,” Ng said. “That’s not the case for these chemicals. And so this means that they can have a lifetime in your body that’s much longer – years, as opposed to hours or minutes.”
Nesta Bortey-Sam, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh, says the body’s typical response to breaking down chemicals from the environment doesn’t really work on dioxins.
“The general idea for (the body’s) metabolism is to break the compound down to be soluble for excretion,” Bortey-Sam said. With dioxins, “this does not always happen and they are able to form other products that have a strong binding affinity with DNA.”
This can lead to serious health problems. According to the EPA, dioxins can cause cancer, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones, and cause reproductive and developmental problems.
Living in a cleanup zone
Tamara Freeze watched the intentionally set vinyl chloride fire on Feb. 6, a few miles away, at her sister’s house. She alternated between watching the cloud of black smoke in the air, and the TV news feed of the fire. Nelson, an electrician, was several states away in Indiana, on a job for his company. He watched the fire, a few hundred feet from his house, on a computer. “To see that plume, it was just astounding to me.”
Tamara returned home later that night.
She was glad to be home but wasn’t quite sure what was in the black smoke.
“All our glasses in our cupboard had a film on them,” she said. “And that’s when I was like, okay, I have to wash all our clothes, all our curtains, all our bedding. Threw out all our pillows, just started washing every dish we owned.”
Like a lot of people in the town, they started hearing about a toxic group of chemicals called dioxins. They also developed health symptoms–Tamara has had a sore throat for weeks. It goes away when she spends the day outside of East Palestine. Nelson has had inner ear problems, which he described as a severe itchiness and strange white spots on his skin.
Tamara says for her, finding out what was in the smoke is not about propping up any kind of legal case against Norfolk Southern. It’s about understanding what kind of life they would have if they stayed.
“It’s so we know that our dog can safely go and roll around in the grass, and we’re not going to contaminate the air with cutting the lawn in the summer, and wanting to know if we can grow tomatoes and be safe to eat them.”
Nelson says when they report out the results, government agencies shouldn’t sugarcoat the long-term effects of the derailment.
“Just tell me the truth,” he said. “I’ll make up my mind as long as I’ve got the facts. I can’t really decide what I’m going to do until I know for sure what the hell it actually is.”
The Freezes are split on whether to accept Norfolk Southern’s offer to temporarily relocate while cleanup takes place. Tamara wants to leave. But Nelson doesn’t want to be away from home for months at a time.
So, for now, they’re staying in East Palestine, and waiting on test results to see how safe their home will be in the future.