As residents near the toxic train wreck get rashes, sore throats and nausea, state sets up clinic

Feb 20, 2023, 6:21 AM
Ayla Antoniazzi's 4-year-old daughter developed a rash after going back to school in East Palestine...
Ayla Antoniazzi's 4-year-old daughter developed a rash after going back to school in East Palestine. Mandatory Credit: Courtesy Ayla Sue Antoniazzi

(CNN) — While officials have repeatedly sought to assure residents that the water and air in East Palestine, Ohio, are safe after the derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials earlier this month, anxiety has permeated the community amid reports of rashes, nausea and headaches.

The state now plans to open a health clinic in East Palestine Tuesday for residents concerned about possible symptoms related to the derailment and the Biden administration announced it deployed experts to help assess what dangers remain in the area after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine requested medical teams from the US Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention and the US Department of Health.

It’s been over two weeks since a train carrying vinyl chloride derailed in the small community of less than 5,000 people, igniting a dayslong inferno and prompting crews to carry out detonations to the toxic chemical to prevent a potentially deadly explosion.

The detonations unleashed a black cloud of smoke over the area, where a chemical stench lingered for days. While it was deemed safe for evacuated residents to return home on February 8, community members have questioned how safe their village is and the validity of the air and water tests.

US Sen. Sherrod Brown said residents are “right to be skeptical.”

“We think the water’s safe,” Brown told CNN, citing comments made by the administrators of the state and federal Environmental Protection Agencies. “But when you return to your home, you should be tested again for your water and your soil and your air, not to mention those that have their own wells.”

Testing of air quality in more than 530 homes has shown no detection of contaminants, the US Environmental Protection Agency said Sunday.

As for the water, no vinyl chloride has been detected in any down-gradient waterways near the train derailment, EPA official Tiffani Kavalec told CNN last week.

And while some waterways in the area were contaminated — killing thousands of fish downstream — officials have said they believe those contaminants to be contained.

After crews discovered the contaminated runoff on two surface water streams, Sulphur Run and Leslie Run, Norfolk Southern installed booms and dams to restrict the flow of contaminated water, according to the EPA.

Still, despite the assurances from officials that the water is safe, some residents are too afraid to drink from their taps and the town has been distributing bottled water.

Desiree Walker — a 19-year resident of the town who lives just 900 feet from the derailment site — told CNN affiliate WOIO that she refuses to let her children drink the water, fearing it could have long-term health effects.

“There’s a big concern because they’re young. They’ve got their whole life ahead of them,” Walker said. “I don’t want this to impact them down the road. I want them to have a long, happy life.”

Walker said her family is feeling symptoms, but doctors tell them they don’t know what to test for.

“At nighttime especially is when we smell it the most,” she told the station. “Our throats are sore, we’re coughing a lot now. My son, his eyes matted shut.”

‘Why are people getting sick?’

As anger and frustration bubbled in the small town, hundreds of East Palestine residents attended a town hall last week to express concerns over air and water safety in their community.

Residents reported a variety of issues — including rashes, sore throats, nausea and headaches — and shared worries that the symptoms could potentially be related to chemicals released after a train derailment.

“Why are people getting sick if there’s nothing in the air or in the water,” one resident yelled during the gathering.

Ayla Antoniazzi and her family returned to their house less than a mile from the crash site the day after evacuation orders were lifted. The mother made sure to air the house out and wash all the linen before bringing her children home.

“But the next day when they woke up, they weren’t themselves,” Antoniazzi said. “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.”

The Ohio Department of Health’s clinic opening Tuesday is meant to help East Palestine recover from the incident, officials said. The clinic will have registered nurses, mental health specialists and, at times, a toxicologist, the agency said.

“I heard you, the state heard you, and now the Ohio Department of Health and many of our partner agencies are providing this clinic, where people can come and discuss these vital issues with medical providers,” said the department’s director, Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff.

The decision to conduct controlled detonations at the derailment site on February 6 has also fueled skepticism and questions about safety.

Officials said the move was meant to avert an explosion at the site of the derailment by venting the toxic vinyl chloride gas and burning it in a pit, a move that shot up a thick plume of smoke over the town.

Vinyl chloride — a man-made substance used to make PVC — can cause dizziness, sleepiness and headaches and has also been linked to an increased risk of cancer in the liver, brain, lungs and blood.

The burning vinyl chloride gas could break down into compounds including hydrogen chloride and phosgene, a chemical weapon used during World War I as a choking agent, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency and CDC.

After the detonation, crews checked the air for chemicals of concern, including phosgene and hydrogen chloride, as well as butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether acetate, and 2-ethylhexyl acrylate, according to the EPA, and reported that the data was normal.

Work now continues to clear the crash site.

The train’s operator, Norfolk Southern, is “scrapping and removing rail cars at the derailment location, excavating contaminated areas, removing contaminated liquids from affected storm drains, and staging recovered waste for transportation to an approved disposal facility,” the EPA said Sunday.

“Air monitoring and sampling will continue until removal of heavily contaminated soil in the derailment area is complete and odors subside in the community,” the agency said.

Calls for accountability mount

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent a letter Sunday to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, demanding accountability and calling for greater safety regulations.

“The people of East Palestine cannot be forgotten, nor can their pain be simply considered the cost of doing business,” Buttigieg wrote to the railway’s chief executive.

“You have previously indicated to me that you are committed to meeting your responsibilities to this community, but it is clear that area residents are not satisfied with the information, presence, and support they are getting from NorfolkSouthern in the aftermath and recovery,” Buttigieg added.

Brown also pledged to hold the rail company accountable for the impacts on the community, saying in a news conference he would “make sure Norfolk Southern does what it says it’s going to do, what it’s promised.”

“All the cleanup, all the drilling, all the testing, all the hotel stays, all of that is on Norfolk Southern. They caused it, there’s no question they caused it,” Brown said, adding the total cost could amount to either tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

Norfolk Southern’s CEO posted an open letter Saturday telling East Palestine residents, “I hear you” and “we are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive.”

“Together with local health officials, we have implemented a comprehensive testing program to ensure the safety of East Palestine’s water, air, and soil,” Shaw said in the letter, adding that the company also started a $1 million fund “as a down payment on our commitment to help rebuild.”

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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As residents near the toxic train wreck get rashes, sore throats and nausea, state sets up clinic