This story has been updated.
Most people surveyed in the aftermath of the train derailment and chemical fire in East Palestine reported health symptoms related to the February incident. Federal and state health officials released survey results at a public meeting Tuesday evening.
Jill Shugart with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry [ATSDR] told residents that 702 people in Ohio and Pennsylvania filled out an “ACE survey,” an Assessment of Chemical Exposures, between February 21 and the end of March, most of those at health clinics.
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“They had headaches, coughing, difficulty breathing, stuffy nose or sinus congestion and burning nose or throat,” she said.
Headaches were the most common symptom reported, followed by anxiety.
Shugart confirmed that some health officials also became ill when canvassing the community, especially those closest to the derailment site.
“Our staff did have symptoms that are typical of those people who come in contact with chemicals released in this community,” she said, clarifying that not all staff members got sick and that the symptoms of those who did cleared up within a few hours.
“We don’t know for certain if there will or won’t be long-term health effects from these exposures,” for anyone exposed, Shugart told the crowd of nearly 40 residents.
“The symptoms you may see right away that may last a few days to months, and then more of the latent symptoms that we may have to worry about later years in life,” said Dr. Arthur Chang of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Residents want to know what’s in their bodies
Some listening in the church pews want to know what chemicals they have been exposed to and told officials they have had difficulty getting blood and urine tests.
People asked about the chemicals butyl acrylate, benzene, dioxins, and especially vinyl chloride, which is used in making PVC pipes. It was purposely released from tanker cars a few days after the derailment and burned, which led to an explosion. Vinyl chloride has been linked to liver cancer in workers regularly exposed to it.
Biomonitoring can identify markers of vinyl chloride exposure in urine. But Dr. Chang cautioned against these tests “because there are a lot of false positives,” he said.
For example, a person who has taken vitamin B12 or folate might test positive for the markers of vinyl chloride, Dr. Chang told residents. Still, he explained that the best thing for people worried about long-term health problems is early detection.
“That’s the reason why we’re saying go to your doctor so that you can get examined and get the proper test. We know how to treat dangerous outcomes. We may not know how to get rid of vinyl chloride from the body, but we know how to treat those cancers,” Dr. Chang said.
Residents like Lori O’Connell of Darlington, Pennsylvania, said their doctors haven’t been able to help.
“My daughter has been throwing up since February 3rd,” she told Dr. Chang and other health officials.
Her daughter, age 24, had testing last month.
“My daughter’s benzene test just came back; her vinyl chloride test just came back. They are double what they should be,” O’Connell said. “And you know what [her doctor’s] response to her was? ‘I don’t know what to do to help you.’ That’s what he told my daughter.”
Not all doctors even know to send people to get these tests, according to residents at the meeting. And in Ohio, there is an additional issue.
“If you want to be evaluated in person by a medical toxicologist, unfortunately, right now in Ohio, there are no toxicology clinics,” said Dr. Shan Yin, director of the Cincinnati Poison Control Center. He said Ohioans would have to go to Pittsburgh to have their results evaluated by a toxicologist.
The message from health officials was that residents should see a doctor regularly to be able to detect changes in their health.
“You can see changes even before you have any damage to your liver, first in liver function testing,” Dr. Chang said. “The other things are important when you see your doctor is that your doctor can report any of those cases to the health department, and then we will know that there is a cluster of illness that are not explained so that we can get more people and more resources here to help.”
In the coming weeks, the ATSDR invited residents to join a workshop with the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine to explore additional health surveying and research opportunities in East Palestine.