The paradox of East Palestine: safe test results come back, while residents report health problems
One of the central paradoxes in the wake of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio last month was on full display during a hearing of Pennsylvania state officials Tuesday: Independent testing overwhelmingly shows no evidence of harmful chemical contamination, while more than 100 residents are complaining that they’ve experienced new or worsening health problems since the derailment occurred Feb. 3.
Richard Negrin, the Pennsylvania Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, told state lawmakers at a hearing of the House Policy Committee in Darlington, Pa., that air and water testing results and some initial soil testing results all point to the same conclusion.
“There's now thousands of data points that we have gotten results on and all that is being made available and put on our website,” he said. “And all of them show that there are no measurements that have exceeded safety thresholds for short-term exposure.”
But Negrin and other state leaders also qualified these optimistic results and said that there could still be long-term impacts that are not known yet.
Negrin also addressed concerns about whether contractors for Norfolk Southern could be trusted. He said state leaders said they now had significant independent testing that they could rely on independently of the company. Negrin said they still do compare their results to what Norfolk Southern is reporting, but they don’t accept their results without additional verification.
“It was clear to me that [Norfolk Southern] used a contractor that they use everywhere who makes a lot of money working for Norfolk Southern, who then sends it to a lab that does a lot of work for Norfolk Southern,” Negrin said. “which is why we did independent testing for the first time ever and sent it to our lab.”
Meanwhile, state Health Secretary Debra Bogen said that more than 100 Pennsylvania residents surveyed by the Pennsylvania Department of Health have reported new or worsening health symptoms since the derailment. Most of the symptoms are headaches, anxiety or problems with their ears, nose or throats, she said.
Most of the residents who filled out the survey came to seek help at an emergency health center in Darlington, which has been open since February 28. The health center has served more than 500 residents, Bogen said, about two-thirds of which had environmental questions and about a third of which were looking for medical help.
Health problems appear particularly acute in first responders. Around 87 Pennsylvania first responders have completed a health assessment, Bogen said, and about half reported at least one health symptom after helping contain the train derailment.
Bogen said there isn’t yet a plan for how to respond to these reports of health problems but that the state health department is continuing to collect health surveys and has plans in the coming weeks to analyze the results and formulate a response, in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The health department also conducted three webinars to provide additional information to state doctors, and Bogen said more than 580 health care professionals across 17 counties attended the webinars.
Health officials are not testing for chemicals in people’s blood, Bogen said, because there isn’t clear information about what levels of chemicals pose a health risk or how doctors should respond to increased levels. Instead, she said, the focus continues to be on testing for chemicals in the water, air and soil that could end up in people’s bodies.
State Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said the state was looking at whether Norfolk Southern will cover any financial losses incurred by farmers as a result of the derailment. And he said that the state may need to step in to help farmers if the company doesn’t.
“We're expecting that livestock, as they are on the landscape today, can be sold and enter the food system,” Redding said. “I think there's an open question about all of that until we have all of the results in.”
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