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Why East Palestine plant tissue samples weren't tested for volatile organic compounds

A map of the plant tissue sampling locations in relation to the derailment site. The map also shows how many samples were taken from each area.
Ohio Department of Agriculture
The Ohio Department of Agriculture and Ohio State University collected and tested plant tissue samples from 16 agricultural areas in Columbiana County.

Recent plant tissue sampling in East Palestine shows no contamination from the February Norfolk Southern train derailment earlier this year.

The derailment led to the carcinogen vinyl chloride being vented and burned from unstable train cars, as well as the release of several other chemicals into the environment.

Residents have voiced skepticism about the testing, saying the list of compounds tested was incomplete, a continued complaint against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's testing of water, air and soil as well.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) and Ohio State University tested plant tissue samples for semi volatile organic compounds. Some residents voiced concerns that the testing didn’t include volatile organic compounds.

But testing for volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, would have been fruitless, Ohio State professor of soil science Jeff Hattey said.

“The VOCs would have already been dissipated by the time we began our sampling," Hattey explained.

Instead, the team focused on testing for a list of semi volatile organic compounds associated with the train derailment.

“Those would have been the types of compounds, or the byproducts of those would have been the compounds, that would have been deposited as a result of the vent and burn or the crash itself," Hattey said.

The testing followed procedures used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in monitoring conditions in East Palestine, ODA Director Brian Baldridge explained.

“We went along the lines of the tests, tried to stay in the same pattern of the tests that had been done in the other spaces as far as whether it was soil and water," Baldridge said.

Plant tissue samples were not tested for dioxins, a group of toxic chemicals, or furans, a volatile liquid, Hattey explained.

"EPA at the time had told us that there were no dioxins or furans found above background levels," Hattey said, adding that dioxins have not been found in the soil.

Additionally, neither VOCs or SVOCs can be absorbed by plants through the soil, Hattey said.

"Another key piece about the dioxins, furans and SVOCs, these chemicals are not taken in by the root system," Hattey said. Instead, the testing was to see whether any materials were deposited on the plant's surface or whether contaminated soil splashed up on the plant, he explained.

EPA analysis of soil samples show little contamination from the train derailment.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.