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Pitt to Study Effects of East Palestine Train Derailment

Some residents are still experiencing symptoms months after the derailment. “Sometimes it comes on, and my mouth hurts, my teeth hurt, my tongue swells. It’s like, ‘Oh, something was disturbed today.'"

Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio
Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 4, 2023.
(Dustin Franz/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
(TNS) - The University of Pittsburgh Schools of Public Health and Medicine announced on Wednesday an award of nearly $870,000 total in grant money from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to conduct various tests in East Palestine, Ohio, following last year's train derailment in the small Ohio town.

The money represents two separate grants — one $437,250, the other $429,022 — lasting two years that will involve the collection of blood and urine from 300 East Palestine residents and those living up to 10 miles from the derailment site. Indoor air and water, basement testing and sediment and soil samples will be gathered as well. The goal is for community leaders to be trained to collect samples alongside researchers to enhance collaboration.

"These two grants are very much addressing community concerns," said Maureen Lichtveld, dean of the Pitt School of Public Health and one of the principal investigators on the project. "We will have opportunities for community members to be part of the research and helping to collect. That way, there's ownership of the process."

Last Feb. 3, 38 cars of a Norfolk Southern train derailed near the Ohio - Pennsylvania border, 11 housing hazardous chemicals that seeped into the ground and waterways. Three days later, authorities conducted a controlled burn of cars containing vinyl chloride. The head of the National Transportation Safety Board earlier this month told Congress that the burn may have been unnecessary.

More than a year after the disaster, the community feuds over how to move on, and many still seek answers.

Vicki Hoffman and Doug Simpson live less than a mile from the derailment site and said they would be happy to participate in the new Pitt study. Shortly after the accident, they moved out of East Palestine to a trailer in Darlington, Pa., about 10 miles southeast of East Palestine.

They stayed there until descending temperatures forced them back into their home in November, where they have been living ever since. Ms. Hoffman said she occasionally experiences reactions she thinks are related to lingering chemicals.

"Sometimes it comes on, and my mouth hurts, my teeth hurt, my tongue swells," she said. "It's like, 'Oh, something was disturbed today.'"

Ms. Hoffman said those reactions last about 30 minutes to two hours and then pass — unlike the debilitating symptoms she experienced immediately following the derailment.

Eventually, Ms. Hoffman moved into the trailer full time, while Mr. Simpson was both at home and living in the trailer.

The couple has already participated in a slew of similar research projects, including one led by Dr. Erin Haynes from the University of Kentucky. Ms. Hoffman said the study involved wearing a silicon wristband for a week and keeping a diary of her activities. The team then tested the residue on the bracelets for specific chemicals. Last month, Dr. Haynes' team received more funding, also from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, to continue research.

Dr. Lichtveld and her team at Pitt plan to collect fluids from East Palestine residents and test them for any long-term consequences to vinyl chloride exposure.

"Vinyl chloride over time is a liver carcinogen," said Dr. Lichtveld. "We are looking for early signs of liver dysfunction."

Because the grants only last two years, the plan is to store the samples in a large biobank to be able to refer back to five, 10 years down the line. Scientists also want to use the information to apply for a much larger grant later, one that will allow them to conduct additional years of research.

In addition to urine and blood samples, the team plans to collect indoor air and water samples, both with community-friendly air samplers and sophisticated equipment. The easy-to-use mechanism of the former should ensure that researchers and community leaders can work together, and that accuracy of the readings are enhanced. What they find from the air samples will guide who they collect blood from, depending on where there might be the highest risk of exposure. They also want to specifically test basements of residences to understand more about how chemicals have settled into homes.

The second grant will go toward collecting and examining soil and sediment samples from the bottom of streams.

"The same way that we can fingerprint what happens with an individual, we want to fingerprint what happens in the environment," Dr. Lichtveld said.

Doug Simpson, a retired water consultant and licensed water treatment operator for 45 years and a member of East Palestine's Village Council, said he will be happy to participate, help collect samples and recruit those who are interested — but he and his wife worry about divisions in the town.

"People don't trust each other," said Ms. Hoffman.

The three leading community organizations have largely settled into different camps and have different beliefs about how to move forward, Ms. Hoffman said: Some think the town is tainted with toxins and that no one should visit or live there and the parks should not be renovated, while others just want to move on. She's unsure how effective collaboration might pan out under these circumstances.

"I've been browbeaten, threatened and bullied, but I've got to do what's best for the community I represent," said Mr. Simpson, discussing his role on Village Council. "It's disheartening. How do you articulate to people that they need to participate in these studies to get information to actually treat the issues they're having down the road?"

Chris Page , of Lisbon, Ohio , and the CEO of Threshold Solutions, a nonprofit that houses residents in East Palestine with developmental disabilities, doubts his clients will be able to participate in the study because they will need guardian approval.

But with five private and five business residences in the small town, he said he would be more than happy to greenlight testing of basements and has faith the community will be able to collaborate.

Ms. Hoffman said the grant money was wonderful news and she is happy to participate. She hopes the study can inform the decisions of younger generations.

"I'm just tired of it," she said. "Every day is like a slog. Every day, the disaster hangs over your head. It's only a matter of time before we all get cancer."

The Pitt research team plans to head up to East Palestine to begin their work in a couple of weeks and will collect samples intermittently over the two-year grant period.

"I can't wait to get started," said Dr. Lichtveld. "The community deserves our attention, and they deserve answers."

Hanna Webster :


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