Prove your humanity

This story is the sixth and final story in a series examining the aftermath of the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

After the Norfolk Southern train derailment, Candice DeSanzo and her family spent months away from their home in East Palestine, Ohio, because being at home made them feel sick – swollen throats, burning eyes, rashes, nosebleeds.

Every time they came back to town, their symptoms would return.

“One time we were here for two hours and we were driving out, and I look back and there’s blood coming out of my one-year-old’s mouth,” said DeSanzo.

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In August, DeSanzo and her family returned to their home, which sits on a hill less than a mile from the derailment site. She set up half a dozen air filters inside the house and threw out bags of clothes that smelled like chemicals.

Gradually, things improved, but DeSanzo is still worried about contamination inside her house. In one room in her basement, she started feeling symptoms every time she folded laundry there.

“My toes would start tingling. Then my nose would start running, my throat would start hurting,” DeSanzo said.

A woman sits in a chair holding a young boy outside on a porch.

Candice DeSanzo with her son on the patio of her home in East Palestine. Private testing showed dioxins in her soil. Photo: Reid R. Frazier / The Allegheny Front

DeSanzo got a chemical test in her house, which found dioxins, toxic chemicals associated with the derailment, on her property. She wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to periodically test the inside of her home.

“They should be testing for 30-plus years here. How do you know what’s going on if you’re not testing?she said.

But the agency has declined. This baffles her.

“Why would they not? If there’s only two of us crazies in this town that don’t think it’s safe–test our homes,” she said.

The EPA has been testing outdoor air all year in East Palestine for volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, like the chemicals released in the derailment.

“Not only are we not seeing the chemicals of concern at low levels, we’re not seeing them at all,” said Mark Durno,  a site coordinator in East Palestine for the EPA.

Since the air is clear now, Durno thinks there’s no way for contaminants to make their way into homes. He also says it would be hard to tell if any detectable chemicals inside homes came from the derailment or from chemicals already present inside homes, from paints, cleaners, fuels and cosmetics.

“If we do indoor sampling, it’s going to be inconclusive because of all the sources of volatile organics already in homes from all the compounds and lifestyle and structural chemicals.”

Experts weigh in

However, scientists contacted by The Allegheny Front said indoor testing would be a good idea in East Palestine.

Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil, environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University and vocal critic of the EPA’s response in East Palestine, says chemicals released into the environment can get inside peoples’ homes through underground aquifers, soil or even sewer lines. He points to the guidance that the EPA’s own scientists have published on this concept, known as vapor intrusion.

“This occurs near Superfund sites where you have known chemical releases. VOCs get into the sewers, they can come up into the homes and they can cause immediate or long-term health impacts,” said Whelton.

A man looks toward the camera with a train running on the tracks behind him.

Ben Terwilliger, who lives 900 feet from the derailment site, is skeptical of the EPA’s testing. Photo: Renee Rosensteel for The Allegheny Front

The EPA says it is testing soil and groundwater and that there’s “no evidence to suggest” contamination has spread throughout the town.

Still, Kimberly Garrett, an environmental toxicologist and post-doctoral fellow at Northeastern University who has done informal consulting with East Palestine residents, says regulators should have been doing indoor testing from the beginning.

“It would have been beneficial to collect that data as soon as possible, to collect home samples as soon as possible, and do it repeatedly until they could show that either there wasn’t anything of concern inside the homes,” Garrett said, “or if there was, that we could see it decrease over time, which is what we would expect.”

Michael Bisesi, vice dean of the College of Public Health at Ohio State, where he’s professor and chair of environmental health sciences, is part of a team of researchers analyzing chemical testing in East Palestine conducted by the EPA and others.

He cautions that just because people were exposed to chemicals right after the derailment, that doesn’t mean they will suffer long-term effects.

“In most of those substances that have irreversible or long-term effects, it’s not just the presence of that contaminant that triggers the irritation, the cough, the sneeze. It’s ‘How long are you exposed to cumulative exposure over time?’” Bisesi explained.

From what he’s seen, he doesn’t think the level of contamination in East Palestine poses a long-term health threat. But he says there’s only one way to find out for sure what people are being exposed to inside their homes.

“Sometimes it warrants collecting samples to answer the question with data,” Bisesi said.

In a letter from October 20, a bipartisan group of Ohio’s U.S. congressional delegation, including Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance, called on the EPA to conduct indoor testing to ease the minds of residents who are still concerned. Otherwise, they wrote, “the EPA risks eroding the trust of many in our community.”

A man holds a cell phone with a photo of flames and smoke.

Ben Terwilliger shows a photo he took of the train derailment on Feb. 3, 2023. Photo: Renee Rosensteel for The Allegheny Front

One such resident is Ben Terwilliger, who lives about 900 feet from the derailment. He’s had neighbors who’ve had their homes tested by Norfolk Southern and EPA.

“They all came back (saying) ‘nothing’s wrong – everything’s well within the limits,’” said Terwilliger, whose eyes burned for months after the derailment and whose wife now has a chronic cough. “Well, we all saw the nuclear cloud. You know, I find that hard to believe.”

The EPA, it turned out, was allowing Norfolk Southern to use an instrument that doesn’t adequately detect butyl acrylate, one of the chemicals that spilled in the derailment. It’s that kind of experience that leads Terwilliger and others to be skeptical about EPA’s testing.

“Personally, I don’t really trust the EPA to tell the truth,” Terwilliger said.

Both Candice DeSanzo and Ben Terwilliger would like to leave a town they think is polluted., but neither can afford to move.

“Nobody wants to be in our house right now,” Terwilliger said. “When the train goes by, you hear the whistle; everybody gets anxiety.”

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Special thanks to our Fund for Investigative Journalism mentor, Pete Carey, retired Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist with the Mercury News California, for his advice and guidance on our East Palestine coverage.