By Andrew Malekoff
The Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, is the latest ecological nightmare plaguing the inhabitants of a growing number of American towns. My ears perked up listening to teacher and mom Courtney Newman speak out in her hometown during a nationally televised town hall meeting on Feb. 22.
Just to refresh, East Palestine is a predominantly white, working class village of 5,000 residents, situated close to the Pennsylvania border. The train derailment was reportedly triggered by a severely overheated wheel bearing, further compromised by insufficient safety sensors and procedures to prevent disaster. Eleven of the 38 derailed cars contained vinyl chloride, a hazardous chemical that poses an increased risk of blood, liver, brain and lung cancer, among other serious health risks.
Norfolk Southern implemented a controlled release of the containers carrying vinyl chloride to lessen the risk of scattering shrapnel from an explosion. This entailed burning the designated tankers’ chemicals, releasing fumes that can be lethal if inhaled. A five-day evacuation was ordered Feb. 6 before proceeding.
At the town hall, after her return home, Courtney Newman said her son was experiencing health issues that included an unprecedented succession of bloody noses. “I took him to the pediatrician on Friday,” said an exasperated Newman. “I was told they had no guidance from the CDC, the Health Department – there was nothing they could do.”
Other residents reported chemical odors silently seeping into their homes, permeating clothing, mattresses and more. Still others complained of headaches, nausea, rashes and conjunctivitis.
Listening to the residents’ testimony, my mind leapt to Flint, Mich., and Jackson, Miss. – two American cities that were poisoned in the last decade.
The water crisis in Flint was made public in April 2014 when in a cost-cutting measure the drinking water supply from Detroit’s system was switched to the Flint River. When vital treatment and testing of the water was not carried through, troubling health issues emerged.
It has now been more than six months since Jackson, Miss.’s water system failed, depriving more than 170,000 people of water to drink, wash or flush toilets. Although Jackson’s fragile pipe system is being replaced, many residents believe they will have to rely on bottled water indefinitely.
To paraphrase one of Yogi Berra’s memorable quips: In East Palestine it’s like déjà vu all over again.
What folks like Courtney Newman are being told by government officials simply does not match up with what they see with their own eyes and feel in their guts. There are troubling symptoms of physical disease and a bubbling stew of stress, confusion, anxiety, fear, trauma, anger and terror, all of which signal risk for long-term mental health problems, especially if left unaddressed.
Many residents of East Palestine, as their predecessors in Flint and Jackson, are not confident that they are getting straight answers from government officials regarding the potential short and long term impacts of toxins in the air and water, and especially as it affects their children. They don’t know who to trust.
They have observed dogs, cats and chickens falling ill. Among the dead wildlife surveyed in the immediate aftermath of the chemical release, Ohio’s Department of Natural Resource found that an estimated 43,785 aquatic animals died.
On Feb. 24, environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who blew the whistle on Pacific Gas and Electric Company in 1993 for groundwater contamination in Hinkley, Calif., told an audience of 2,000 at East Palestine High School, “I can’t tell you how many communities feel that these moments are the biggest gaslight of their life.”
Meanwhile, if the parents of East Palestine are aware of the Flint and Jackson disasters, they must be wondering if their children with still-developing brains may sustain cognitive impairments that could last a lifetime. Wouldn’t you?
Residents pointed out that aside from the possibility of sustaining long-term health problems, when they step outside and smell chemicals that they didn’t smell before, regardless of any positive safety reports from government, it impacts on their quality of life and reduces property values.
After a disaster most families would prefer to hear painful truths and next steps, as opposed to disingenuous mixed messaging and platitudes shrouded in politics that tiptoe around people’s lived realities.
Thinking back to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack and collapse of the Twin Towers in NYC, people were misinformed when were told it was safe to be near the World Trade Center site. Years later many who worked the site or lived nearby developed cancer and other diseases due to toxic exposure.
Even closer to home in Bethpage, aerospace pioneer Grumman knew for decades, dating back to the 1970s, that harmful chemicals were contaminating area groundwater. They concealed critical information from the public that could have put an end to what Newsday referred to as “Long Island’s most intractable environmental crisis.”
If I was living with young children in a poisoned town, beyond feeling a pervasive sense of dread, I believe I would have to contain feelings of murderous rage, especially if I thought I was receiving half-truths or none at all. A sticker on my office wall says it best, “When government lies, democracy dies.”
While health officials in East Palestine announced that it is now safe for community members to return home, breathe the air and use tap water, residents remain suspicious and not sure what to believe or where to go.
For good reason.