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Study considers East Palestine post-derailment link between air quality, disease

A sign reads, "Welcome to historic East Palestine, Ohio. 'Where you want to be.'"
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
East Palestine became the center of national attention following the derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.

A study is underway in East Palestine to understand possible links between air pollution and disease, after the Norfolk Southern train derailment and controlled burn of chemicals last year.

Case Western Reserve University researchers are gathering baseline data in the community to better understand the effects chemicals have on DNA over time.

The cohort applied for a rapid response grant in April to look for signs of DNA damage that might be linked to illnesses like cardiovascular disease or cancer, Principal Investigator and Coleader of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center Fredrick Schumacher said.

"The goal of the grant was to initiate a conversation with the community in East Palestine, and to also start a cohort, or a bio repository, examining those that might have symptomology, as well as those that were in proximal distance to the train derailment," he said.

The team will use a measure called somatic mutation rate to look for signs of DNA damage that can be linked to exposure from chemicals released after the derailment, Schumacher said.

East Palestine Train Derailment Smoke Plume
Gene J. Puskar
A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train, Feb. 6, 2023.

Step one was to establish relationships in the community, through social media, government agencies and even the county fair, Schumacher said.

A lot of that was, for me, just kind of a listening exercise," Schumacher said. "I really ... wasn't trying to intervene and provide any kind of guidance from the science or from the health effects, but just to kind of hear what, a number of residents were saying, and what they were kind of concerned about, and what they were looking for."

Researchers will collect biological samples, like saliva and strands of hair, and use DNA sequencing to monitor changes in residents’ DNA over time. But the team is expanding its search outside of East Palestine to other parts of Columbiana County, Mahoning County and Beaver and Lawrence Counties in Pennsylvania.

Aerial view of derailed Norfolk Southern train cars and the surrounding East Palestine landscape.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
It's been one year since a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine. Since then, Norfolk Southern has been cleaning and remediating the effected areas, but some residents still think the town is unsafe to live in.

"We did get a lot of positive feedback from the Pennsylvania residents where they felt a little bit left behind from the from their state representatives," he said. "Partly, I think, because it's just the way the borders work and the way the EPA works, and so they were very happy to have somebody there who was kind of thinking about Pennsylvania as well as Ohio."

Ideally, the cohort will see physical symptoms decrease over time as remediation efforts in East Palestine continue, Schumacher said.

"What we would hope to see is maybe a spike in the somatic changes and then a decrease of that across time as the exposure is being removed and the person has a chance to kind of, to heal and get back to baseline," he said.

The research is supported by a the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine's Clinical and Translational Science Collaborative, which received a $62 million grant from the National Institute of Health grant for expanding disease research.

Schumacher's research in East Palestine highlight's an important goal of expanding research efforts in underserved communities, Vice Dean and Principal Investigator for the collaborative Grace McComsey said.

"When East Palestine happened, the community itself, being rural, is one of our our communities where there are health inequities. so we wanted to help that way," she said. "By us being, kind of, the infrastructure for enhancing research, when I see a need that nobody seems to care about giving money to, this is where we step in and say, 'okay, we'll give you money to start.'"

The cohort submitted an additional grant application to support continued research, and should hear back within a few weeks, Schumacher said. Afterward, the team will begin DNA sequencing and hopes to preliminary results as early as the spring.

Researchers will stay in contact with participants throughout the study, Schumacher said, and will work to ensure data is accessible and digestible for the public.

"We've been working with genetic counselors to help provide the best message," Schumacher said. "We want to make sure that we facilitate that if they have any follow up questions."

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.