(CNN) — An overwhelming smell of chlorine filled the air this week in the place where Nathen Velez and his wife have raised their two children, rapidly burning his throat and eyes.
The smell has lingered for nearly two weeks after a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed near the Ohio-Pennsylvania line, igniting an inferno that raged for days and prompted evacuations in surrounding areas as crews managed the detonations to release vinyl chloride, which can kill rapidly at high levels and increase the risk of cancer.
The East Palestine, Ohio fire chief then declared that the evacuation order had been lifted five days after the derailment, after the results of air and water samples led authorities to consider the area safe. The governors of both states declared that day that air quality samples had “consistently returned readings below detection levels for contaminants of concern,” but also advised private well users to switch to bottled water and offered testing. free of wells.
Now, a week after residents were allowed to return, they should continue to drink bottled water until they get results from more tests, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine told “CNN This Morning” on Wednesday, noting that the water in the first well tested “was fine.”
Still, he said, “Don’t risk it. Wait for the test results.”
As that warning resounds and other troubling signs emerge, many East Palestinians remain wracked with anxiety, with some refusing to return for fear that the water, air, soil and surfaces in the town of 5,000 are not safe from the side effects of the cargo accident.
Some, like Velez, have even spent small fortunes trying to keep their families safe away from the place they used to call home.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs have invited residents to meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss the impact of the derailment before an evening town hall meeting hosted by East Palestine officials.
Long-term effects stoke residents’ anxiety
The 100-car freight train that derailed on February 3 was carrying hazardous materials such as vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene and butyl acrylate, the US Environmental Protection Agency reported. (EPA). Vinyl chloride gas that caught fire could break down into compounds such as hydrogen chloride and phosgene, according to the EPA and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). a chemical weapon used during World War I as a suffocating agent.
Vinyl chloride — a volatile organic compound, or VOC, and the most toxic chemical implicated in the derailment — is known to cause cancer, attack the liver and can also affect the brain, Maria Doa of the Defense Fund told CNN. environmental.
Kurt Kohler of Ohio EPA’s Office of Emergency Response stated on February 8 that following the emergency response, “Ohio EPA will continue to be involved through other divisions that oversee the long-term cleanup of this type of spills”. Also, the federal EPA “will continue to do everything in its power to help protect the community,” its administrator, Michael Regan, declared Tuesday.
But that’s little comfort to Ben Ratner, whose family is worried about long-term risks that environmental authorities are only beginning to assess, he told CNN this week.
The Ratners’ home, for example, was tested and cleared for VOCs, he said. So far, the EPA has detected no hazardous chemicals in the air at 291 homes, including vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride, it said in a news release Monday.
But the Ratners, who played extras in a Netflix disaster movie with unsettling similarities to the derailment crisis, continue to feel “a shifting mix of emotions and feelings from the start, because of how many unknowns there were,” Ben said, that he has a coffee shop in a nearby town and isn’t sure he wants to open another one in East Palestine.
“It’s hard to invest in something like that or even feel good about paying the mortgage when those things may not have any value in the future,” he says. “It’s kind of hard to take.”
“Why does it hurt to breathe?”
EPA, with the Ohio National Guard and a contractor from Norfolk Southern, also collected air samples to test for the presence of vinyl chloride, hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide, phosgene, and other compounds, in the East Palestine community. The air monitoring results posted Tuesday on the EPA website include more than a dozen instruments, each with four types of measurements, each indicating that its “detection level” has not been exceeded.
But when Velez returned Monday for a brief visit to the neighborhood where his family has lived since 2014 to check out his home and business, he developed a headache that he said stayed with him overnight, leaving him with a dread. persistent.
“If it’s safe and livable, then why does it hurt?” he told CNN. “Why does it hurt to breathe?”
Despite Velez’s experience, air quality does not appear to be the source of people’s headaches and sore throats or the deaths of animals such as cats and chickens in and around the derailment zone, he said Tuesday. Ohio Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff.
“As for some of the headache symptoms etc., unfortunately volatile organic compounds share, with a number of other things, the ability to cause very common symptoms at lower levels, so headache , eye irritation, nose irritation, etcetera,” he said. “I think we have to look at the measured facts, and the measured facts include the fact that the air sampling in that area doesn’t really point to an air source for this.”
“Anecdotes are challenging because they are anecdotes,” Vanderhoff said. “Everything we’ve gathered so far really points to very low measurements, if any.”
As for odors, residents “in the area and tens of miles away may be able to pick up odors coming from the site,” Ohio EPA spokesman James Lee told CNN on Wednesday. “This is because some of the substances implicated have a low odor threshold. This means that people can smell these contaminants at levels much lower than what is considered dangerous.”
“If you are experiencing symptoms, the Columbiana County Health Department recommends calling your medical provider,” the EPA said.
Derailment and spillage are responsible for the death of thousands of fish
The Ratner family is limiting their water intake due to unknown effects, Ben Ratner said. And Velez is concerned that “every time we turn on the tap or bathe my daughter it could be dangerous,” he wrote on Facebook.
Some waterways have been contaminated, but the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is confident the contaminants are contained, said Tiffany Kavalec, chief of the agency’s surface water division.
Vinyl chloride has not been detected in any of the waterways near the train derailment, it said Tuesday. However, the derailment and spill is estimated to have killed 3,500 fish of 12 species, according to Mary Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
“Chemicals from the combustion of the fire” flowed into the Ohio River, “but the Ohio River is very large, and it’s a body of water capable of diluting contaminants fairly quickly,” Kavalec said. The chemicals are a “pollution plume” that the Ohio EPA and other agencies have tracked in real time and are believed to be moving around 1.6 km/h, he said.
“Monitoring allows for the potential closure of drinking water intakes to allow most chemicals to pass through. This strategy, along with drinking water treatment…are effective in addressing these contaminants and help ensure the safety of drinking water supplies,” Kavalec said, adding that they are fairly certain that the “low levels” of contaminants that remain are not reaching customers.
Even so, authorities strongly recommend that locals drink bottled water, especially if the water comes from a private source, such as a well.
Velez is also concerned about the unknown long-term effects of the burned train contents, he said.
“My wife is a nurse and she is not going to take any chances exposing us and our two young children to whatever is now in our town,” he wrote on Facebook. “The risk and anxiety of trying to go back to living in our own home is just not worth it.”
Velez and his family have been renting an Airbnb 30 minutes from their home since they evacuated, but rental options and their finances are drying up, he said, and a friend has created a GoFundMe campaign to help the family.
“Unfortunately many of us residents are stuck in the same situation and the sad truth is there is no answer,” he wrote. “There is no viable solution other than to walk away and pay a mortgage on a potentially worthless house.”
— Greg Wallace, Laura Ly, Ella Nilsen, Nouran Salahieh, Holly Yan, Joe Sutton, Brenda Goodman and Kyla Russell contributed reporting.