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National Academies gather East Palestine health questions to consider future research

This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio, are still on fire at mid-day Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar
This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio, are still on fire at mid-day Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023.

Since the Norfolk Southern train derailment and chemical fires in the area of East Palestine, Ohio, last February, regulators and legislators have looked into concerns about railway safety and environmental issues.

Now, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine are looking at questions about health to help inform future research.

The National Academies are three private, nonprofit institutions that bring together experts to weigh in on important issues and inform public policy.

In this case, burning train cars released various industrial chemicals into the community. Five cars full of vinyl chloride, which EPA has deemed a human carcinogen, were purposefully vented and then set on fire, creating a dark chemical plume seen for miles around.

The National Academies are bringing together a committee including toxicologists, epidemiologists, emergency medical responders, and even a local pastor to look at what is already known about the health effects of the disaster and what questions remain.

“This is not a committee that will come up with conclusions and specific recommendations, but it’s really a coming together in a holistic way of sharing ideas and expertise,” said committee member Dr. Maureen Lichtveld, the dean of the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh.

Lichtveld was involved in emergency response after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

She said it’s essential that the community is part of the process to understand which questions to ask and how to answer them.

“How…can we best measure exposure? What are the kinds of physical and mental health effects we should focus on? How do we measure and follow up over a longer period of time?” she said. “Over a longer period of time, what happens with the people who were exposed? What are the lessons learned from previous disasters?”

Listening to the community and local health providers

The National Academies invited members of the community to a series of four public sessions focused over two weeks. The first one, on Tuesday evening, was about public health services and health care in the area.

“It’s really important to look forward to what we can do because we can’t change the past,” said Misti Allison at the meeting. She is an East Palestine resident who is running for mayor and gave The Allegheny Front permission to publish her comments.

Allison’s family, who lives 1.2 miles from the derailment site, returned home a couple of days after the evacuation order was lifted. She said they had acute medical issues and local providers treated their symptoms but didn’t know how else to help them.

“Especially with our two small children, I’m just really worried about if there are going to be any long-term impacts, and if so, how can we be proactive versus being reactive,” Allison said. “And what can be done from a public health perspective to ensure that everybody in the community is on the same page and is getting the best health care monitoring and tracking for years to come that we need.”

Scientists and researchers also attended the first session, along with Wes Vins, Health Commissioner at Columbiana County General Health District. The committee wanted to know the first things his office heard from people after the derailment.

“The concerns of the residents, obviously, first and foremost was fire, smoke. ‘I’m displaced from my home,'” Vins said in an interview after the session. “Then we started to hear about folks that had concerns for health. They had concerns for the environment, the streams, and certainly drinking water in a rural community.”

Vins said he was proud of the health response. He said his office worked with state and federal agencies to open a community health clinic in East Palestine and coordinated with the nearby hospital to get people additional treatment.

“So we’re very fortunate to have that level of collaboration between mental health, public health, physical health and emergency response, and I think that that’s something I think we did very well,” he said.

Still, he thinks all the unknowns were hard on people, and more needs to be done.

“We need to address the stress and the mental health pieces as much as we do the physical pieces,” Vins said. Mental health was the focus of the National Academies Thursday session.

Considering children

But mental health came up in the Wednesday session held as well, an evening focused on pediatrics and the continuing health concerns for parents and their children.

Zsuzsa Gyenes said she and her 9-year-old are still living in a hotel because the chemical smell in their home, about a mile from the derailment site, makes them sick.

“I’m curious how to help my son. He picks up on a lot hearing about medical symptoms, and I think he’s a little nervous,” she said. Her comments are published here with her permission. “And without us understanding what testing means, what anything means, what’s a good way to talk about it or kind of just exist with it in the time being, in a way that doesn’t scare him?” she asked the committee.

What’s next for the committee

The committee will meet November 6 and 7 to discuss what it hears in the four public sessions, “to really have a conversation about the impacts of the train derailment and what future research might be needed,” said committee chair Kristen Malecki, director for Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in an interview.

“Really, where are the gaps in understanding how can a research enterprise potentially address those uncertainties and move forward,” she said.

Before the November full committee workshops, the National Academies will hold its final community session online and in person on Thursday, October 26, at East Palestine High School.

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