When the Environmental Protection Agency last week ordered dioxin testing after a recent train derailment and fire in East Palestine, Ohio, it acknowledged that residents were facing a familiar and notorious foe from their past. May have to
Contamination by dioxins – toxic chemicals known to cause cancer, disrupt the immune system and cause reproductive harm – from Times Beach, Missouri to Love Canal, New York to “Mount Dioxin” in Pensacola, Florida Notorious has been at the center of an environmental cleanup.
Dioxins do not break down easily. Once in the food chain, the compounds accumulate in people and animals. Experts say that in one way or another, fires spewing smoke in eastern Palestine offered the perfect recipe for making these compounds.
“I saw that cloud over East Palestine, and I was immediately concerned about dioxins,” Dr. Ted Shettler, a retired physician who is science director for the Science and Environmental Health Network, a nonprofit group, said. “It’s really the kind of situation where you’d expect dioxin to build up.”
It is not yet clear whether dioxin was created during the derailment or what level of contamination was present in East Palestine prior to the disaster. Experts said sampling and testing are costly and can take a long time. It may take weeks or months for the risks to become clear.
During congressional testimony on Thursday, Debra Shore, an EPA regional administrator for Midwestern states including Ohio, said testing of materials sent to a contaminated waste facility in Indiana showed “very low levels” of dioxin.
The EPA said this would require Norfolk Southern to “directly test” for dioxins and clean up anywhere that is unacceptable to human health. The EPA has stated that it believes the risk of dioxins being generated during a fire is low. Norfolk Southern will also complete a background study to assess the levels of dioxin that were in the environment prior to the derailment.
In a statement to NBC News on Tuesday, EPA Deputy Press Secretary Khanaya Brann said the agency will review every aspect of the sampling plan to make sure it is “as protective as possible” and if it does not meet the agency’s standards If it does, it will modify it.
In a news release Wednesday, the EPA announced that it has approved Norfolk Southern’s plan for soil sampling. The plan requires contractors to inspect at least 277 sites within 2 miles of the derailment to look for visible ash. Sites with visible ash will be sampled; At least 20% of the ash free sites will also be sampled. It will take at least a week for the test results to come back.
In an emailed statement, Norfolk Southern said it has submitted several plans to the EPA for approval to address dioxin testing.
Norfolk Southern’s statement read, “We have pledged to pay for the clean-up activities to date and will continue to do so as we thoroughly and safely clean up the site, and we will protect residents from the disruption to their lives.” being reimbursed for.” , “We are listening to the concerns of the community as restoration work progresses.”
In recent decades, environmental health regulations have dramatically reduced dioxin exposure for most of the US and helped move dioxin out of the public eye. Now, the toxic history of the compounds at risk in East Palestine may pose a risk to residents of East Palestine, and why outside experts have prompted the EPA to closely monitor complex sampling and testing processes.
Dioxin, if detected even in small amounts, could reshape the food web, affect the long-term health of the people and alter the long-term prospects of East Palestine.
“It doesn’t take much longer than other toxic chemicals,” said Dr. Arnold Schechter, who wrote a textbook on dioxins and their health effects.
Dioxin is a byproduct of industrial processes and has historically been associated with paper mills, the vinyl industry, and medical waste incinerators.
But they can be made any time there is a poorly controlled fire involving chlorine, which is why the derailment and smoke cloud are such a concern in East Palestine.
Five of the cars derailed in East Palestine contained vinyl chloride.
“When you burn vinyl chloride, you can generate significant amounts of dioxin,” said Linda Birnbaum, a toxicologist and former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
She said it is possible that residents of East Palestine and its surrounding areas may have inhaled dioxins in the cloud of smoke created by the incident.
Any dioxin produced can settle in the soil and water where the smoke goes. There, they can begin to affect animals, contaminate locally produced foods and pose a risk to anyone who works or plays with the soil.
“If you eat it, it goes into your body and basically goes into your liver and stuff and distributes throughout your body,” Birnbaum said.
He added that dioxins are stored in adipose tissue and can remain inside the body for years.
Health conditions may appear decades after exposure. In 1976 in Seveso, Italy, a chemical plant exploded, leaking dioxin into nearby towns. About 200 people developed cases of chloraene, a skin condition that looks like acne and forms only in the most severe.
Studies of residents decades later reported increased cancer risk, deaths from diabetes, and effects on fertility.
After dioxin was sprayed throughout the city of Times Beach, the federal government bought the entire city in 1983 and relocated its residents. After more than a decade of cleanup, the evacuated town became a state park.
In 1996 the EPA began the process of relocating residents in a neighborhood in Pensacola away from “Mount Dioxin”—a mound of contaminated soil left behind by an abandoned wood treatment plant. The cleanup has taken nearly three decades.
The EPA issued its first health assessment of dioxins in 1985, identifying the compounds as probable carcinogens. The agency regulates their levels in drinking water and soil; The Food and Drug Administration monitors dioxins in the food supply.
“Since the regulations took effect, levels have dropped dramatically,” Birnbaum said, estimating that average people have about one-tenth the amount of dioxin in their bodies than 30 to 40 years ago. “There is international agreement that dioxins are bad chemicals, and we don’t want to have them.”
Experts said a sampling program for eastern Palestine would require careful design and very sensitive testing because even small amounts of dioxin could be dangerous.
Birnbaum said dioxins in the soil must be tested to levels in parts per trillion, meaning they can detect one dioxin among a trillion other particles. Even more sophisticated testing is required for drinking water samples.
“The concentration of dioxin that can cause adverse effects in people is extremely low. You’re trying to measure things at very low levels. You need sensitive methods,” Birnbaum said.
Experts said that a transparent sampling plan should be made available to the public.
“Are they going to sample air, soil, sediment, water? What are they going to sample and how many places are they going to sample?” Stephen Lester, a toxicologist and science director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, said: “The results of sampling are only as good as the sampling procedures.”
Schetler questioned whether Norfolk Southern should be overseeing the sampling efforts, given the legal and economic implications of the dioxin discovery and the scientific accuracy required for public trust.
“Norfolk should pay for the analysis; The public should not have to pay for this. But Norfolk Southern shouldn’t be doing the analysis,” Schetler said. “It really should be done by the agency or a disinterested third party.”