East Palestine Residents Report Health Problems After Ohio Train Derailment

Residents blanketed by a cloud of toxic dust say they are still suffering from a range of health problems despite authorities insisting the area is now safe.

One local told Newsweek that his pet fox had died in his arms and that several of his neighbors' animals had also died or suffered choking fits. Another reportedly said that her baby had developed breathing difficulties and needed medical treatment.

The fumes were caused after the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, which caused a chemical leak.

The train had been transporting a range of chemicals when it overturned. Carcinogenic substances leached into the land, while a controlled burning to disperse them sent toxic fumes into the sky in a thick plume of black smoke.

East Palestine, Ohio, derailment
Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 4, 2023. DUSTIN FRANZ/AFP via Getty Images

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a full list of the toxic chemicals that had been released across the town, such as vinyl chloride—a colorless gas that can cause cancer and is used in the production of PVC plastics.

Amid fears that the accident had infected the soil, groundwater, and air around residents' homes, some 5,000 people were ordered to leave ahead of the burning when officials designated an evacuation zone, measuring one by two miles, around the site of the crash.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said this week that most homes have now found to be safe, as experts work their way across the town measuring chemical levels. "Our Federal partners at EPA are onsite and monitoring indoor and outdoor air quality to test for VOCs [volatile organic compounds] and other chemicals of concern," he said. "EPA has screened 291 homes and no detections were identified—and 181 homes remain."

However, some locals say they have become sick even as the area is deemed safe to return to.

The New Republic spoke with several homeowners who said they had suffered the effects of chemical exposure, including Chelsea Simpson, whose 8-month-old baby needed medical treatment and drugs after developing breathing difficulties.

Therese Vigliotti, who lives 15 miles north of East Palestine and was therefore not included in the evacuation zone, said she had suffered from numb lips, a burning tongue and throat, and even blood in her stools. Her throat is still troubling her ten days after the derailment.

Other residents also reported suffering from a range of symptoms, including Amanda Greathouse, who wore an N-95 mask and gloves when she briefly returned home to collect some things. She said her eyes burned, her throat became painful, and she developed a rash, while her husband developed a migraine.

Dr. Michael Koehler, a member of the American Chemical Society's Committee on Chemical Safety, told The New Republic that he fears the process to get residents back home may have been rushed. "I am concerned that the area has been deemed safe so quickly without extensive data to show the risk has been reduced," he said. "As long as safety concerns remain, it is hard to understand how they authorized residents to return."

Animals have also been suffering as a result of the chemical spill. Taylor Holzer lives near East Palestine but keeps foxes and other exotic animals at a property inside the evacuation zone. He told Newsweek that his pet fox died in his arms and that a number of his exotic rescue animals became sick. He has also spent thousands of dollars for some of his other animals to undergo treatment at a veterinary hospital.

He said that his neighbors are reporting similar tragic deaths: one resident's cat had to be euthanized because of vinyl chloride poisoning, he said, while he knew of others who lost chickens, and a dead hawk was found in a pasture. His own dog has suffered severe choking fits.

"I feel so bad for the other animal owners that have to go through this and are losing parts of their family, and the wildlife that is suffering," he said.

The train company, Norfolk Southern, has donated $25,000 to the community and promised to issue $1,000 "inconvenience checks" to people who live within the evacuation zone. But several residents, including Simpson, whose baby became sick, said they have been told they do not qualify for the aid.

A spokesperson for Norfolk Southern provided Newsweek with a statement outlining what measures the company is taking.

"These include direct support for residents through Norfolk Southern's Family Assistance Center, equipment for first responders, and continued environmental testing and monitoring, which is being done in coordination with the Ohio and U.S. Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA), and other environmental agencies," the update read.

It went on to add that, so far, environmental monitoring has "completed more than 340 in-home air tests in conjunction with U.S. EPA, with more than 100 additional tests scheduled. In-home air monitoring has not shown any detections of substances related to the incident and does not indicate a health risk."

Results from samples taken from "East Palestine's drinking water supply wells, drinking water system, and private wells in areas potentially impacted by the incident" will be available by next week.

EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore also issued a statement to Newsweek. She said: "[Our] number one priority is—and will always be—the health and safety of communities across the region. That's why as soon as EPA was notified of the Norfolk Southern train derailment on Friday, February 3, EPA personnel were on-site by 2 a.m. Saturday morning to assist with air monitoring. Since then, EPA has been boots-on-the-ground, leading robust air-quality testing—including with the state-of-the-art ASPECT plane and a mobile analytical laboratory—in and around East Palestine.

"Since the fire went out on February 8, EPA air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment. Air monitoring data was provided to state health agencies on February 8 for review prior to the state's decision to lift the evacuation… Through the coordinated efforts of emergency responders, we will continue to protect the health and safety of all residents."

Environmental testing is continuing, she added.

Update 2/15/23 6:46 a.m. ET: This article has been updated with comment from Norfolk Southern and EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore.