Prove your humanity

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Texas A&M say they detected high levels of one hazardous air pollutant in the town of East Palestine, weeks after a train derailment and chemical fire. 

Levels of acrolein, a chemical found in manufacturing and formed in combustion, were up to three times as high as samples taken previously in Downtown Pittsburgh. 

“This is a rural area, so you would expect that the concentrations [in East Palestine] would be lower than Pittsburgh,” said Weihsueh Chiu of Texas A&M, one of the researchers on the project. 

The researchers said levels of other volatile chemicals they measured were normal and in line with measurements reported by the US EPA. But they said they still need to comb through the data to see if there are other chemicals that could pose a health threat. 

They stayed away from assigning blame to health problems experienced by the town’s residents on acrolein or any other chemical. Residents have suffered rashes, headaches, scratchy throats and congestion in the weeks since the derailment and subsequent fire. 

“Because it was only a snapshot in time, we’d be hesitant to attribute particular health effects to acrolein at this time,” said Chiu. “There’s a lot of other things that could be could be going on, and we don’t have a clear sense as to how much variation day to day there is.”

Five rail cars worth of the chemical vinyl chloride were intentionally burned after the derailment, and the EPA said several other hazardous chemicals were spilled.   

What is known about acrolein

Acrolein can cause irritation of the nose, throat and lungs and is one of 188 chemicals the EPA considers a hazardous air pollutant, which it defines as a chemical “known to cause cancer and other serious health impacts.”

Chiu said acrolein is found in chemical manufacturing and also is a byproduct of fire.

“It is a common combustion product. Firefighters have to be concerned about acrolein when they go fight fires,” Chiu said. “So it is a well-known respiratory toxicant.” 

How researchers conducted tests

The air tests were conducted by the researchers on February 20 and 21, several weeks after the derailment. 

Researchers drove the public roads around the town in a mobile lab that used highly sensitive equipment to test for hazardous air pollutants, said Albert Presto, research professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon. 

Ivan Rusyn of Texas A&M, one of the other researchers, said more testing is needed to understand the origin of the higher acrolein levels the team detected.

“They’re not really going down precipitously. And we need to understand whether that’s natural background or something that is still connected to the clean up and off-gassing of compounds that may have been spilled,” Rusyn said.

The team also found that EPA’s public data showed the agency’s equipment used for air monitoring wasn’t sensitive enough to detect acrolein at the level of the agency’s own health-based standard. That means pollution levels EPA had deemed ‘safe’ could have actually exceeded healthy limits for people with prolonged exposures over 15 days. 

Rusyn said he hopes EPA will use more sensitive equipment to measure for the chemical.  

“The current methodology used by the EPA is not very sensitive, and acrolein is a difficult chemical to evaluate,” Rusyn said, adding that it was understandable, given the emergency conditions under which EPA was operating, for the agency to use less sensitive methods. 

“The time and the expediency that was needed to analyze these data and the samples and to post them was using the appropriate methodology. But as we continue with the responses, we hope that the more sensitive analysis will be performed,” he said.

The team said it would be combing through data for weeks to come, as the instruments they used collected data on thousands of chemicals.

Chiu said they will be “looking at a broader suite of chemicals to see whether there might be something that nobody’s measuring or monitoring yet and whether there’s any other chemicals there.”