Pains, rashes and fear: Trauma lingers after Ohio derailment
EASTERN PALESTINE, Ohio — Heather Bable speaks quickly, recalling the terror of the night when a train loaded with dangerous chemicals derailed less than half a mile from her home in East Palestine, Ohio. She heard a terrifying roar and, from her bathroom window, “all you saw were the flames”.
Spirit racing, she thought of the gas station nearby—its gas pumps, diesel and propane tanks.
“I kind of kept myself in check, I said to my kids, ‘OK, guys, we have to go,'” Bable said. “…The only thing I knew was that I had to get my kids to safety. Just take the necessary things and get out of there.
Her voice hangs, tears in tired eyes, as she describes the physical and emotional toll of the February 3 disaster and subsequent chemical burn: eight days in a hotel and a difficult ride home; hoarseness, congestion, nausea and itching; inconclusive doctor visits; the “horrible smell” that bothers her at night; anger at the Norfolk Southern rail company over the accident and government agencies, she says, reacted too slowly.
And a constant fear – breathing the air, drinking the water, letting her 8-year-old son play outside. Fear for eastern Palestine, where his family has lived for four generations. Now, at 45, Bable is eager to get moving. The same goes for his mother, who has been here even longer.
“We don’t feel safe anymore,” Bable says at Sprinklz On Top, a cozy downtown restaurant. She takes a bottle of water from her jacket pocket and takes a sip. She doesn’t drink from the tap anymore these days.
She glances at a smartphone app that reports local air quality. “Just a few days ago, when the weather was so nice, I didn’t dare open my windows, because I didn’t want the air to come in,” she said.
Bable took time off from his job at the factory to find another place to live.
“He loves being in the yard,” she says, pointing to her son, Ashton.
“Now we can’t do that. … I’m even afraid to cut this grass, because what’s still left in the ground? It’s just not fair.
Bable’s fate mirrors many residents of this village of 4,700 near the Pennsylvania line a month after 38 railcars were derailed. A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board blamed an overheated wheel bearing.
Several tank cars were carrying hazardous chemicals that ignited or spilled. Days later, after evacuating thousands of nearby residents, crews evacuated and burned toxic vinyl chloride from five cars to prevent an uncontrolled explosion, sending another black plume skyward.
Fear and mistrust still grip many in a community reeling from government assurances that air and water are safe; warnings from activists like Erin Brockovich about the cover-ups and the danger for years to come; and misinformation on social media.
“It’s hard to know what the truth is,” said Cory Hofmeister, 34, after Brockovich and attorneys seeking litigation plaintiffs staged a crowded high school rally that highlighted potential risks to the health.
The outrage against the railroad, widely condemned for failing to prevent the disaster and doing too little afterwards, is palpable. A married couple recently sold signs reading ‘Together we stand against Norfolk Southern’ on a sidewalk table to benefit the fire department. Business was brisk.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw expressed regret and pledged a deep cleanup.
Sherry Bable, 64, stands near the roadblock, keeping onlookers away from the derailment site. His house is just down the street. Heather lives a few blocks away with Ashton and her 25-year-old daughter, Paige.
“Every time I hear a train, all I think is, ‘Oh my god, don’t let it happen this time,'” Sherry says. “And I’m not the only one in town like that.”
She looks sadly at Sulfur Run, a creek near the train tracks. Previously a popular wading spot, it is now one of the waterways that receives “KEEP OUT” signs during testing and cleaning.
Like her daughter, Sherry checks her phone for air quality data and footage from a street-trained home camera. It captures trucks, bulldozers and other vehicles entering and exiting the area. Nearly 4.85 million gallons (18.36 million liters) of liquid sewage and 2,980 tons (2,703.41 metric tons) of soil were removed, according to Gov. Mike DeWine’s office.
“This railroad company should buy all these houses, tear them down – take care of the families with children first, get the old people out, and then work with everyone,” Bable says. “Because I always say this stuff will cause cancer.”
Federal agencies say prolonged exposure to vinyl chloride — primarily through inhalation — is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers. But experts say living near a spill doesn’t necessarily increase the risk. It is difficult to prove the links between individual cases and pollutants.
The US Environmental Protection Agency says Norfolk Southern has yet to report exactly how much vinyl chloride has been released. The EPA monitors the air at 29 outdoor stations and tested it in more than 600 homes, finding no vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride – a skin, eye and nose irritant that can be generated when vinyl chloride is burned. He ordered Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins, which may have been released during the February cremation.
University researchers from Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon say their own sampling of a mobile lab picked up chemicals including vinyl chloride and acrolein, a foul-smelling and probable carcinogen that can form when burning combustibles, wood and of plastics.
Most readings fell below minimum risk levels for people exposed for less than a year. But acrolein levels were high enough in some places to raise long-term health concerns, said Carnegie Mellon mechanical engineering research professor Albert Presto.
The EPA said its measurements temporarily recorded slightly elevated acrolein concentrations, but did not consider them health risks.
Bruce Vanderhoff, Ohio’s director of health, said in February that foul odors and symptoms such as headaches can be triggered by airborne contaminants at levels far below what is dangerous.
State officials also say no contaminants associated with the derailment were found in the municipal water supply or 136 private wells. Norfolk Southern is planning soil sampling, with farmland a priority.
None of this reassures the Bables.
After more than a week in a hotel, Sherry returned home. The next morning she had congestion, a hoarse throat and itchy eyes, she said.
Since then, she has had itchy red patches on her skin, headaches and a “slime” substance in her eyes.
Heather, interviewed three weeks after the crash, showed selfies of red spots on her face and neck. The night before, a strong stench of “burnt plastic” woke her up. Smells are worse at night as cleanup work continues, she says.
Both women – and Heather’s children – consulted doctors. An x-ray showed Sherry’s lungs were clear. The two are awaiting blood test results, but say their doctors didn’t know what to look for.
“That’s one thing I hate about it,” Sherry said. “Nobody really gets any answers.”
Officials say they are trying to provide them.
The state has opened a free clinic where residents take medical exams and meet with mental health specialists and a toxicologist. State and federal teams also distributed more than 2,200 informational flyers, according to the EPA, which has an information center in town.
Ted Larson, an epidemiologist with the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and Vidisha Parasram of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were among the federal and state teams knocking on doors in the region – leaving behind flyers inviting residents to take a health assessment.
Larson and Parasram say they smelled chemicals near the railroad the day they arrived and are in no doubt about the residents’ health issues.
“My daughter is 9 years old,” Parasram said. “I would like to get her out of here and take her far, far away.”
The Ohio Department of Health is also looking for participants in the health survey. Its questionnaire asks people about how close to the accident and for how long, what types of smells they remembered, physical and mental symptoms and more.
With at least 320 surveys completed, officials said the main symptoms include headaches, anxiety, coughing, fatigue and skin irritation.
Heather wants to get out of the danger zone. But his search for another house or another apartment leads to nothing. She says many places are taking advantage of the situation and “charging double or triple what we’re paying.”
She remembers growing up in East Palestine, a blue-collar community in the Appalachian foothills an hour northwest of Pittsburgh. Before the derailment, she considered it perfect for a family.
“It was peaceful,” she said. “You could go to the ball games. You could let the kids play outside and you would be out at night listening to the crickets, the frogs. People were friendly.
The local economy appeared to be recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Now it’s happened…and it just went back down,” she says. “People don’t want to come here. They are afraid.
Sherry and her husband are also considering leaving.
Her living room is stocked with pallets of bottled water, and she’s replaced her dogs’ dishes, toys and bedding. She mostly keeps them indoors now.
But while she’s here, she’s determined to hold the railroad and the government accountable. “They think we’re… small-town hicks,” she says.
“They keep telling us it’s OK here, the air quality. Now I would like to see them come here to live in houses, especially just behind the crash site, see how they like it and how safe they feel.