Some residents of East Palestine, Ohio, say they have developed rashes, sore throats, nausea and headaches after returning to their homes this week, and they’re worried these new symptoms are related to chemicals released after a train derailment two weeks ago.
The February 3 incident caused a massive fire and prompted officials to evacuate hundreds of people who lived near the site because of fears that a hazardous, highly flammable material might ignite. To prevent a potentially deadly explosion, toxic vinyl chloride gas was vented and burned, releasing a plume of black smoke over the town for days.
Other chemicals of concern at the site include phosgene and hydrogen chloride, which are released when vinyl chloride breaks down; butyl acrylate; ethylene glycol monobutyl ether acetate; and 2-ethylhexyl acrylate, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. All these chemicals can change when they break down or react with other things in the environment, creating a stew of potential toxins.
Residents were given the all-clear to return to their homes February 8 after air monitoring in East Palestine did not detect any elevated chemicals of concern.
Officials say further testing of indoor air in about 500 homes has also not shown any hazards. Tests of tap water from the municipal system didn’t show any chemicals at levels that would pose a health hazard, although officials are still testing water from rivers, streams and residential wells in the area.
These test results have failed to reassure some residents, who say something is making them sick – even if officials can’t find it.
“When we went back on the 10th, that’s when we decided that we couldn’t raise our kids here,” Amanda Greathouse said. There was a terrible, lingering smell that “reminded me of hair perming solution.”
Greathouse said she was back in their house, about a block from the crash site, for 30 minutes when she developed a rash and nausea.
“When we left, I had a rash on my skin on my arm, and my eyes were burning for a few days after that,” said Greathouse, who has two preschool-age children.
She and her husband have returned to their home only twice since the derailment, to pick up paperwork and clothing.
“The chemical smell was so strong that it made me nauseous,” Greathouse said. “I just wanted to quickly pick up what I needed and leave. I only took a few pieces of clothes because even the clothes smelled like chemicals, and I’m afraid to put them on my kids.”
She says she’s also kept her children out of preschool since the derailment. Even though her son’s teacher has promised her that students are using only bottled water, she’s worried about other types of contamination.
“I don’t want to take my son out of the preschool they’re in because I really like the teachers he has, but I’m still scared. Some teachers have even expressed their concerns about the air quality,” Greathouse said.
“We are very fortunate that we rent our home. Didn’t think I would ever say that. I feel awful for my landlord, but I just can’t risk my family’s health.”
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said a request for medical experts from the US Department of Health and Human Services has been granted, and officials should be arriving early next week to help prop up a clinic for patients.
“We know the science indicates that this water is safe, the air is safe. But we also know very understandably that residents of East Palestine are concerned,” he said Friday.
DeWine said he plans to set up a clinic where HHS officials and others will answer questions, evaluate symptoms and provide medical expertise.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also says it expects to have a team on site Monday, according to a CDC spokesperson who requested that they not be named because they weren’t authorized to share the details. The team will conduct an Assessment of Chemical Exposure investigation, which surveys the impact of a chemical release on people and the community.
The volatile organic compounds released by the controlled explosion can cause symptoms similar to those reported by some East Palestine residents, including headache, sore throat, and nose and eye irritation, but experts say it’s extremely difficult to connect chemical exposures to health effects.
“That is a major challenge,” says Erin Haynes, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Kentucky.
“The community is now exposed to a mixture of numerous petroleum-based volatile organic compounds, so it may not just be one, it could be the mixture of them,” Haynes said.
Haynes, who has experience investigating toxic exposures in communities, says she is seeking approval from her university’s Institutional Review Board to start a study in East Palestine to help give residents more information on their chemical exposures in air, water and soil.
“They need all the help they can get,” she said. “This is a major emergency. This is a major disaster. They need all the assistance that we all can provide.
“The evidence of a toxic exposure could very well be the rashes,” she said.
Audrey DeSanzo would like some answers, too.
“How safe is it, really?” said DeSanzo, who lives about half a mile from the derailment with her two grade-school-age children. “It’s not in all these people’s heads that are getting rashes, that are having the conjunctivitis, the pinkeye, from chemicals.”
“You have a sore throat when you’re staying here. It smells out here.”
After the derailment, DeSanzo evacuated with her kids just over the state line in Pennsylvania, where her uncle had an empty duplex. They slept on the floor and the couch.
When she came home this week, DeSanzo says, she aired out her house, changed the furnace filter and washed their sheets and clothes. Even so, she says, they all recently went to a local immediate care clinic because her kids were coughing, and “our throats were raw.”
Tests for strep throat were negative. The doctor prescribed cough medicine for the kids and told DeSanzo that the chemicals were probably to blame.
The doctor said she had seen a number of East Palestine residents with similar symptoms, DeSanzo said, and advised them to call poison control and go to the local hospital for a blood test. She hasn’t gotten the blood test yet.
Debbie Pietrzak, a spokesperson for Salem Regional Medical Center, which runs the clinic DeSanzo went to, confirmed that it has treated a small number of residents with symptoms like sore throats and respiratory problems. The hospital’s emergency room has seen fewer than 10 patients from East Palestine, she said.
“Our facilities and primary care providers stand ready to help anyone who is seeking medical attention, and we are working closely with the County’s Health Department and other local, state and federal agencies, which are monitoring the situation,” Pietrzak said in an email.
Natalie Rine, a pharmacist who directs the Central Ohio Poison Center, said the state’s poison control centers are getting calls from East Palestine residents, too. Experts who staff the help lines are trained in toxicology and can help if chemicals are a health concern.
DeSanzo says she wants to leave but can’t afford to. Her mortgage is about $400 a month, less than half of those of other homes she’s found in the area that are farther from the accident site.
“I make $14 an hour. Where am I supposed to go?” she said. “I don’t want to be here now with with my kids.”
Ayla and Tyler Antoniazzi and their two daughters have been living in East Palestine since April. After the train crash, they weren’t sure about moving out, Ayla says, but they’re now considering it.
The Antoniazzis returned to their house less than a mile from the accident site the day after the evacuation notice was lifted.
“Before bringing my kids back home, I washed all the linen and a bunch of clothes, cleaned surfaces and aired the house out,” Ayla said. “But the next day when they woke up, they weren’t themselves. My oldest had a rash on her face. The youngest did too but not as bad. The 2-year-old was holding her eye and complaining that her eye was hurting. She was very lethargic, so I took them back to my parents’ home.”
Ayla says her daughters are staying with her parents in Leetonia, about 20 minutes west of East Palestine, until the couple is able to make sure their home is safe.
The kids’ symptoms got better in Leetonia, she said, but one got another rash when she returned to school in East Palestine on February 13.
“I did allow my 4-year-old to return to preschool, which is in the East Palestine Elementary School. She went back for two days and developed another rash on her hands and started complaining of itching, so I pulled her back out,” Ayla said.
Ayla has scheduled a medical appointment with her daughters for next week to discuss their symptoms and testing options, she said.
That’s the right thing to do, says Dr. Kari Nadeau, an allergist and chair of the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health.
Nadeau says rashes, sore throat, and headaches can be clinical signs of a chemical sensitivity.
“There are people that are highly sensitive to chemicals and can feel it before necessarily a monitor can pick it up,” Nadeau said. “There’s not a great diagnostic pathway for chemical sensitivities. A lot of it is based off clinical symptoms, including rashes.”
Nadeau and other environmental health experts advise people who are having symptoms to see a health care provider, primarily for medical care but also so their case can be documented.
“So that if there is a cluster, or if there’s a group of people that all of a sudden have complained about a rash or given symptoms, that really helps doctors come together with institutions like the CDC and do a little bit more fact-finding,” she said.