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'Believe nothing you hear.' Distrust reigns among East Palestine residents

Sarah and William Gump stand near the railroad tracks outside their home near the east Palestine train derailment that released toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil in the area. February ‎15, ‎2023
Matthew Chasney
For Ideastream Public Media
Sarah and William Gump stand near the railroad tracks outside their home near the site of the East Palestine train derailment that released toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil in the area. Sarah Gump said she distrusts much of the official communication regarding the crash.
East Palestine health clinic
Taylor Wizner
Ideastream Public Media
East Palestine resident Jeff Zalick went to the Ohio Department of Health-run clinic for a checkup after he feared health impacts from exposure to toxic chemicals spilled in the train derailment.

After the East Palestine train derailment caused toxic chemicals to be released into the air, water and soil less than a half mile from his house, Jeff Zalick wanted a doctor to make sure he was OK.

Zalick evacuated with his 100-year-old mother shortly after the crash and has returned to their home a few times since officials told residents it was safe. He's had a few nosebleeds since, and that's been concerning, he said.

On Friday, Zalick went to an Ohio Department of Health (ODH) clinic at a church in town. A nurse took his vitals and a doctor checked his heart and lungs.

That made him feel better, he said, but no one was able to provide the answers he wanted about possible long-term health effects. He said he doesn't think anyone ever will.

"It's never going to be [answered clearly]," he said. "You don't know breathing this stuff. You don't know... These chemicals could hit us and, you know, make us sick.”

The clinic was set up to provide reassurance, but some in the community like Sarah Gump, who lives along the train tracks about a mile from the crash site, have declined to go because of a deep distrust of authority.

sarah and william Gump at the site of East Palestine derailment
Matthew Chasney
For Ideastream Public Media
Sarah Gump says she relies on information in news articles and on TikTok to help her navigate the possible effects on her health and that of her husband, William, and her two children.

Gump is eager for information on how to manage the possible health effects of the crash, but distrusts many of the traditional sources of information, relying instead on information posted by friends in Facebook groups or videos on TikTok.

There’s a lot of disinformation out there, she said. But she prefers to try to fact-check those sources rather than trusting the clinics, the local or state government, the EPA or the rail company.

“My mom said, 'Believe nothing you hear. And only half of what you see,'” Gump said.

Zalick, Gump and others living near the toxic train derailment describe trying to make decisions about their health in an environment rife with a lack of satisfying and dependable information from authorities and misinformation from all corners.

All this at a time when trust in authority across the country has eroded.

Polling from the Pew Research Center shows that trust in many authorities had been in decline, a trend that accelerated during the pandemic. In 2021, a majority of respondents said they did not trust journalists, 60%, business leaders, 60%, or elected officials, 76%. The share of people who said they had "not too much trust" or "no trust" in medical scientists increased from 15% in 2016 to 21% in 2021.

Pew Research Center

Unfortunately, those are many of the groups in charge of the response to the East Palestine crash.

That makes making health decisions difficult, Gump said.

After the train derailment and subsequent fire, a gray fog enveloped the home Gump shares with her two children and husband.

She foam-sealed cracks around the window casing in her nine-year-old sons’ room to keep the chemicals out, she said.

“It just stunk so bad that I went and got another can and filled every little thing that I could,” she said.

Gump said since the fog rolled in, she’s felt sick too.

“I'm covered in a rash. I dry heave constantly," she said. "It's awful. I feel so nauseous. And then I will just go dry heave for 20 minutes because I can't stop. That's just making me so sick. I haven't been able to eat.”

Gump says what she wants is answers, but they’re not easy to come by. When she tried to get a blood test for exposure to chemicals, she got the run around at a doctor’s office, she said.

“And they tried to argue with us and not let us sign in. And when we did get signed in and we did end up going to see our PCP, she ordered us each three blood tests, a urinalysis and a chest X-ray.”

She’s waiting on the results.

Many in town are further distrustful because the official response doesn’t seem to match the severity of what residents are reporting online: mysterious medical symptoms, unexplained animal deaths and an unnatural oily sheen skimming the surface in local streams, Gump said.

Many wonder about the possibility of corruption or the influence of money in politics, Gump said.

"That's what a large majority of the community has been expressing concerns about — is that we feel like there is a payoff issue because we're being ignored so hard," she said.

Too conspiracies are spreading online. In mid-February, East Palestine police chief batted down a rumor that medical identification bracelets being passed out to residents were government tracking devices.

Meanwhile, the trains keep speeding through town, which Gump said adds to the anxiety.

Local, state and federal officials have repeatedly tried to reassure people, emphasizing over and over that environmental testing has shown the water and air in the area are safe. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and East Palestine first responders have held press conferences to share information, ODH arranged the medical clinics and officials and agencies have posted regularly to social media.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been testing the air, water and soil near the crash and providing daily updates.

The EPA reports it has tested the air in nearly 600 homes near the crash site. None of those tests have exceeded the residential air quality standards, according to the EPA. The agency said it continues to take samples from private water wells and has tested samples from the public drinking water system and says results show no detection of contaminants associated with the derailment in public drinking water.

But the lack of strong communication at the beginning of the derailment from local and state leaders damaged public confidence, said Tim Roberts, a journalism professor at Kent State University.

“It goes back to trust and honesty and also transparency," he said. "If you're going to say the water is safe or the air is safe back it up. Show what was done, how it was done, what metric is being used in a way that everybody can understand.”

In some cases officials have come off as dismissive, he said.

Ohio’s governor, the head of the U.S. EPA and other officials recently toured East Palestine homes. Video of them toasting with glasses of tap water circulated on social media. It was a tactic used during the lead-contaminated drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, by both President Obama and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

"Displays like these minimize people’s concerns," he said.

“These officials don't use the water to cook or to do laundry or to take a shower or to bathe their children," Roberts said. "The residents do, and they have grave concerns.”

His advice: Put knowledgeable people in the community, like first responders and county leaders, in charge of communications over outsiders.

It’s only when people believe they are grounded in the facts, that they can trust what they hear, Roberts said.

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.
Stephanie is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.