Skip to main content

People in East Palestine were told their homes were clear of toxins last year. That might not have been the case

·2 mins

When government officials lifted an evacuation order for people who lived near the site of a train derailment and toxic spill in East Palestine, Ohio, last year, many homes held on to an odd odor. It was a sickly-sweet smell that evoked comparisons to paint thinner, but fruitier, or maybe potpourri mixed with old perfume. To reassure residents, the train’s operator and the US Environmental Protection Agency offered to check the air in homes for chemicals. More than 600 households signed up. However, the handheld devices used for the screening couldn’t detect one of the main chemicals spilled from the train at levels that could irritate the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Case studies of people exposed to this chemical in previous spills have raised questions about longer-term health problems. By the time a more sensitive test was adopted, the home screening was nearly complete. People who had their homes checked were not told about subsequent adjustments to the air testing program and were never offered more indoor air testing. Butyl acrylate was one of the toxic chemicals released into the soil, air, and local waterways after the train derailed and caught fire, damaging hazardous material-carrying cars. Surface water testing found sky-high levels of these chemicals in local creeks in the first few days after the derailment. It is unclear how much butyl acrylate people were exposed to or for how long. Recent independent air testing has shown that people are not currently being exposed to chemicals from the derailment in their homes. However, symptoms reported by residents after the spill were consistent with the known health effects of the chemicals that were on the train. In a previous incident, exposure to this chemical resulted in lasting problems for some individuals. In East Palestine, handheld devices were used to measure levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including butyl acrylate, in homes. Minimal risk levels for butyl acrylate were established by experts in order to allow residents to return to their homes. On February 9, after further study, these levels were revised to be 66 times lower.