Prove your humanity

The US EPA has released results of its soil sampling in the East Palestine, Ohio area, and tells residents that preliminary findings look good, showing little soil contamination from the February 3 train derailment that released multiple carloads of toxic chemicals into the community. Still, some people are worried, as their own tests are finding chemicals in their bodies. 

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Dwindling attendance 

The crowd was significantly smaller at a meeting to announce the soil sampling results last week than at EPA meetings in the weeks right after the fiery derailment. Instead of many hundreds of residents, a couple dozen were in the pews of a local church. 

“Anybody who gave us access to the properties, the good news is that on your property, the soil sampling results look really good,” said EPA’s response coordinator Mark Durno, as he described the government’s findings.

Mark Durno pointing to a map on a tripod

Mark Durno points to a map of the sampling sites at a public meeting to present the results of soil testing on April 20, 2023, at the First United Presbyterian Church, East Palestine, Ohio. Photo: Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

At the community’s request, Norfolk Southern, under the direct supervision of EPA, sampled soil in a one-mile radius of the derailment site, and an additional two miles to the southeast, at nearly 150 locations. 

The samples were analyzed for chemicals that could have resulted from burning five train cars full of vinyl chloride, including dioxins, which are highly toxic chemicals that can linger in the environment for years and cause cancer and other health issues. Residents were concerned that soot, ash and “chips” of debris from the derailment had contaminated their farm fields, lawns and parks. 

At each spot, they took shallow and deeper samples.

“The shallow soils look consistent with the deeper soils, and the levels are really low,” Durno said, while projecting results on a screen for those in the audience. 

This preliminary soil sampling plan (click to enlarge) shows the East Palestine city boundary outlined in yellow; the soil sampling target area outlined in yellow-black; the radius from incident outlined in purple; and the evacuation area outlined in black. The proposed sampling locations are indicated by red, yellow blue and purple dots. Green dots (to the west) indicate background sample locations for comparison. Source: USEPA

There were three samples along roadways, considered the public right-of-way, with elevated dioxin levels. Durno attributed those higher levels to roadway runoff, not derailment fallout, but said there would be another round of testing of these sites.

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Residents respond to results

EPA has monitored air, drinking water, and now soil, and reported to the community that they are considered safe.

“I’m excited, I get to grow a garden,” said lifelong East Palestine resident Bill Strohecker, who lives about a mile from the derailment site. “We still feel safe that we can stay here.”

He was especially glad that soil in the park was found to be safe because he encouraged children to search around the park for Easter eggs.

“Actually, I was the bunny rabbit for the Easter egg hunt,” he laughed. 

But Christina Dilworth, who has moved away from East Palestine since the derailment, doesn’t trust EPA’s environmental findings enough to return home. 

No, not enough to let my grandkids go back home and wonder if they’re going to have health issues down the road,” she said. 

Residents say they’re still being exposed

Eric Cozza, who lives one-third of a mile from the derailment site, said he’s sick, gets bloody noses, and worries about developing cancer. He recently had his urine tested for chemicals from the derailment.

I just took my urinalysis, my urine test, two weeks ago, so it took a week for me to get it back,” he explained. “I have vinyl chloride in my urine.” 

Cozza shared his test results with The Allegheny Front, as well as a chemist’s analysis, which said Cozza had metabolites of vinyl chloride in his urine, indicating he could be exposed to the chemical on a daily basis. 

Vinyl chloride exposure could come from smoking, although levels in tobacco smoke are very low, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the CDC. Cozza says he smokes half a pack a day, but says it would take a lot more than that to create the levels of vinyl chloride found in his results.

Vinyl chloride metabolites were also found in Linda Murphy’s urinalysis. “I have reason to have concerns,” she said. Murphy, who lives 2.8 miles from the derailment site, didn’t share her results. 

According to the CDC, vinyl chloride is quickly eliminated by the body, within days of exposure, so Murphy thinks she is still being exposed to it, most likely from the chemicals from the train derailment, despite government tests showing that the environment is safe.

A few people sitting in church pews at a public meeting

Linda Murphy, in a pink shirt, is in attendance at the US EPA public meeting to present the results of soil testing on April 20, 2023, at the First United Presbyterian Church, East Palestine, Ohio. Photo: Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

“I’m just very skeptical. I just don’t understand how everything has just disappeared, and it’s gone,” she said, talking about the 900,000 pounds of vinyl chloride that was on the train cars. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

EPA’s Mark Durno understands her frustration.

“That’s what makes it hard because I don’t know where you would be getting exposed,” he said. “That’s the problem. We’re not seeing it in the air. We’re not seeing it in the water, and we’re not seeing it in the soil.”

Durno recommended that residents go to the health clinic set up in East Palestine by the Ohio Department of Health to be tested. The clinic spokesperson could not verify to The Allegheny Front what lab tests are being offered to residents and said most people are referred to their primary care physicians.

Unexpected results

To Erin Haynes, Chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Kentucky, the urine results are surprising. “I truly wouldn’t anticipate there to be a marker of vinyl chloride in urine. That’s not expected,” she said.

Haynes thinks community-wide urine testing and other biological analysis should have started in the days after the incident. 

“So there has been air and water sampling, but there’s not a coordinated health component. Let’s put it all together” she said. “I think the disconnect is stemming from a lack of the public health measurement and analysis of that data with exposure data.”

Haynes hopes regulators learn from this for the next toxic chemical disaster.

In East Palestine, Linda Murphy wishes she could put this all behind her. 

“Do you spend your time worrying about this or do you spend your time living your life because what are you going to do about it? What’s your options?” she said.