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Ohio Chemical Spill: Is the Air Safe?

February 22, 2023
by Isabella Backman

There is anxiety in the air after a chemical spill in and around East Palestine, Ohio. In early February, a train carrying hazardous materials derailed, forcing town residents to evacuate as toxic chemicals spilled into the atmosphere. Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has since evaluated the area around the Ohio chemical spill and declared the air quality safe, East Palestine residents still report symptoms including rashes, headaches, and nausea, and many are left wondering if their health is still at risk.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of quantifiable data, the potential short- and long-term health impacts of such a chemical spill are difficult to predict, says Andrew Hong, MD, a clinical fellow who studies occupational-related diseases and exposures. The air and water quality methods used by the EPA are too generalized to determine which chemicals are present, he explains.

“Without quantitative data and specific sampling for various chemicals, it’s hard to say what the exposure level in East Palestine is,” says Hong. “So, it’s difficult to predict what the potential health risks are long-term—we can’t say it’s safe, but we can’t say there’s a lot of risk either.”

Without quantitative data and specific sampling for various chemicals, it’s hard to say what the exposure level in East Palestine is.

Andrew Hong, MD

Among the toxins released in the Ohio chemical spill was vinyl chloride, a starter chemical used for making polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a polymer used in a lot of packaging. It’s associated not only with acute health effects like irritation of the eyes and respiratory system, but also with more serious long-term impacts including liver damage and cancer. Other materials included butyl acrylate, monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene. There are limited studies on any long-term or carcinogenic effects from these substances.

Although the town has lifted its evacuation order, many East Palestine residents remain skeptical about the safety of their homes as they face a frustrating lack of answers. Although dispersal of chemicals in the air may have diluted them enough to minimize harm, there is certainly the potential for health risks. The limited information is in part due to the fact that the EPA’s air quality measures are imprecise. “They’ll monitor a class of chemicals like volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, but there are a multitude of VOCs. It doesn’t really distinguish which specific chemicals are present, and there are often false negatives,” says Hong. “So it’s not super accurate quantitative data.”

Exactly what’s in the air after a chemical spill such as this one is hard to pin down. Without a breakdown of all the chemicals and their byproducts that are present in the air or water, it’s difficult to definitively say what the health risks are. Furthermore, these chemicals may be reacting with the environment. “There are a lot of reactions that can take place with the moisture in the air or in the ground soil,” says Hong. “And so, there’s potential for there to be more exposure, but we don’t have that data because no one is testing for it.”

Hong doesn’t want to generate unnecessary panic. But fully understanding the severity of the exposure will require more rigorous, longer-term sampling methods that tell scientists the breadth and concentrations of chemicals present at the crash site, in people’s homes, and in the surrounding water periodically, over at least a year or two. The typical method for air sampling uses metal cannisters that can absorb various chemicals present in the air and analyzes them in the lab. A similar analytical technique can be used for water testing. This would require resources in the form of personnel, equipment, time, and money. And even so, scientists will never be able to fully guarantee safety—but just assess whether health risks are high or low. “I think getting this long-term, more specific testing is going to require some pressure from the public,” says Hong.

Submitted by Robert Forman on February 23, 2023