A survey of western Pennsylvanians who live near the toxic train derailment just over the Ohio state border found more than 8 in 10 experienced at least one adverse health symptom since the accident.
The most common symptoms are headaches, anxiety and ear, nose and throat issues, according to Dr. Debra Bogen, acting secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Health.
She spoke Tuesday during a joint public hearing of the Pennsylvania House Democratic and Republican Policy Committees held in Darlington Township, Beaver County, about 7 miles from the derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio.
Bogen said 143 people completed the survey as of Sunday. An additional 87 first responders from the commonwealth who responded to the derailment took the Assessment of Chemical Exposure survey, with roughly half reporting at least one symptom occurring or worsening since then, she said.
The survey is voluntary and is open through the end of March. It isn’t an analysis of individuals’ health data or medical diagnoses. Questions included potential symptoms experienced by pets, with about 3 in 10 pet owners reporting their animals had at least one symptom.
While survey data will be studied for patterns to further explore, Bogen stopped short of drawing any scientific or medical conclusions.
“I think it is too soon to say,” Bogen told state lawmakers.
The rare joint meeting of the partisan policy committees, particularly one held outside of Harrisburg, saw state agency leaders testify about the emergency response and subsequent impact of the derailment.
Environmental monitoring in Western Pennsylvania, including independent water sampling, detected no contaminants related to the derailment on Feb. 3 and subsequent decision by Norfolk Southern to conduct a controlled burn of five train cars carrying toxic chemicals.
Randy Padfield, director, Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, spoke of Norfolk Southern’s unilateral decision to conduct the controlled burn on five cars containing vinyl chloride, a volatile substance used in the production of certain plastics. About 12 hours before the burn was conducted, the railroad indicated it considered a controlled burn for a single train car. Then, it shifted to five, he said.
“That was jaw dropping because we had no previous indication that they were concerned about venting and burning all five,” Padfield said.
Richard Negrin, acting secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said thousands of datapoints from the monitoring are publicly available online. He spoke of how air monitoring in the state began within 12 hours of the incident, with handheld monitors in use far faster in under three hours. The state has also since initiated independent testing of private wells and public water sources and also soil sampling.
The monitoring is largely contained to a 2-mile radius. Negrin said it will continue in the coming months.
“If we are to see some contamination of groundwater into the future, we should see it within those two miles first,” Negrin told lawmakers.
State lawmakers expressed concern for long-term health impacts and commitment for long-term environmental monitoring. State Rep. Arvind Venkat, D-Allegheny, an emergency physician, said significant investments will be necessary in the realms of physical health, behavioral health and community health.
State Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester, said maternal and infant health effects must be part of any monitoring.
“This is something that could still be impacting families who live here 50 years from now. We need to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for taking care of those families in the future,” Friel Otten said.
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