Pain, rashes and fear: the trauma remains after the Ohio derailment

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Heather Bable speaks quickly, recalling the terror of the night a train loaded with dangerous chemicals derailed less than half a mile from her home in East Palestine, Ohio. She heard a shuddering boom and, from the bathroom window, “all you saw was flames.”

Mind racing, he thought of the nearby gas station—its gas pumps, its gas and propane tanks.

“I kept a little under control, I said to my children, ‘OK, guys, we have to leave,'” says Bable. “… The only thing I knew was that I had to take my children to safety . Just take the things you need and get out of here.”

His voice cracks, tears welling up in tired eyes, as he describes the physical and emotional worst after the disaster on February 3 and the subsequent chemical burn: eight days in a hotel and an uneasy return home; hoarseness, congestion, nausea and itchy rashes; inconclusive medical examination; the “God-awful smell” that disturbs her at night; anger at train company Norfolk Southern over the crash and government agencies believe they responded too slowly.

And the constant fear – to breathe the air, drink the water, let his 8-year-old son play outside. He fears for East Palestine, where his family has lived for four generations. Now, at 45, Bable is eager to move. So is his mother, who has been here even longer.

“We don’t feel safe anymore,” Bable says at Sprinklz On Top, a cozy downtown diner. She pulls a bottle of water from her jacket pocket and takes a sip. Don’t drink from the tap these days.

She looks at a smartphone application that reports the local air quality. “Just a couple of days ago, when it was so nice, I didn’t dare open my windows because I didn’t want the air to come in,” he said.

Bable took a leave of absence from his factory job to find another place to live.

“He likes to be out in the yard,” she says, gesturing toward her son, Ashton.

“Now, we can’t do that. … I’m also afraid to cut that grass, because what’s left on the ground? It’s not fair.”


Bable’s plight mirrors many in this village of 4,700 near the Pennsylvania line a month after 38 train cars derailed. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board blamed an overheated wheel bearing.

Several tank cars were carrying hazardous chemicals that had spilled or spilled. Days later, after evacuating thousands of nearby residents, crews vented and burned toxic vinyl chloride from five cars to prevent an uncontrolled explosion, sending another black plume skyward.

Fear and mistrust still take hold in a community frustrated by government assurances that the air and water are safe; warnings from activists like Erin Brockovich about coverups and the danger for years to come; and social media misinformation.

“It’s hard to know what the truth is,” said Cory Hofmeister, 34, after Brockovich and lawyers seeking plaintiffs for litigation hosted a packed meeting at the high school that highlighted potential health risks.

The outrage against the railway company, widely condemned for failing to prevent the disaster and for doing too little afterwards, is palpable. A married couple recently sold yard signs that read, “Together we stand against Norfolk Southern,” from a sidewalk table to benefit the fire department. Business was brisk.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw expressed dismay and promised a thorough cleanup.


Sherry Bable, 64, stands near the roadblock keeping gawkers from the derailment site. His house is just down the road. Heather lives a couple of blocks away with Ashton and their 25-year-old daughter, Paige.

“Every time I hear a train, all I keep thinking is, ‘Oh, my god, don’t let anything happen this time,'” says Sherry. “And I’m not the only one in town like that.”

He gazes sadly at Sulfur Run, a creek near the railroad. Previously a popular place to swim, it is now among the waterways receiving “KEEP OUT” signs amid testing and cleanup.

Like her daughter, Sherry checks her phone for air quality data and images from a home camera set up on the street. Capture trucks, bulldozers and other vehicles entering and exiting the area. Almost 4.85 million gallons (18.36 million liters) of liquid sewage and 2,980 tons (2,703.41 metric tons) of soil were transported, the office of the government Mike DeWine says.

“This railroad company should buy all these houses, tear them down — get families with kids first, get the old people out, and then work with everyone else,” says Bable. “Because I keep saying this stuff is going to cause cancer.”


Federal agencies say that prolonged exposure to vinyl chloride – mainly through inhalation – is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers. But experts say living near a spill doesn’t necessarily raise the risk. Proving links between individual cases and pollutants is difficult.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says Norfolk Southern has yet to report exactly how much vinyl chloride was released. The EPA monitors the air at 29 outdoor stations and has 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 could be released during the February incineration.

Researchers at Texas A&M University and Carnegie Mellon say their own sampling from a mobile lab picked up chemicals including vinyl chloride and acrolein — a smelly, probable carcinogen that can form during the burning of fuels, wood and plastic. .

Most of the readings fell below the minimum risk levels for people exposed less than a year. But acrolein levels were high enough in some places to raise long-term health concerns, said Albert Presto, a research professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon.

The EPA said its measurements temporarily recorded slightly elevated acrolein concentrations, but they did not consider them to be a health risk.

Bruce Vanderhoff, Ohio’s health director, said in February that bad odors and symptoms such as headaches can be triggered by air pollutants at levels well below what is not not sure

State officials also say no contamination associated with the derailment has been found in the municipal water supply or in 136 private wells. Norfolk Southern plans 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, he had congestion, a hoarse throat and itchy eyes, he said.

Since then, he has had red itchy patches of skin, headaches and a “goopy” substance in his eyes.

Heather, interviewed three weeks after the crash, showed selfies of red marks on her face and neck. The previous night, a strong stench of “burnt plastic” woke her up. The smells are worse at night as the cleanup work continues, he says.

Both women — and Heather’s children — visited doctors. An X-ray showed that Sherry’s lungs were clear. Both are awaiting blood test results, but say their doctors weren’t sure what to look for.

“That’s one thing I hate about it,” says Sherry. “No one really gets answers.”

Officials say they are trying to deliver.

The state has opened a free clinic where residents receive 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 the city.

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 ‘area – leaving behind leaflets inviting residents to take a health. evaluation.

Larson and Parasram say they smelled chemicals near the railroad the day they arrived and don’t doubt the residents’ health concerns.

“My daughter is 9 years old,” said Parasram. “I want to fly out of here and take her far, far away.”

The Ohio Department of Health is also seeking health survey participants. Their questionnaire asks people about the proximity of the crash and for how long, what kind of smells remembered, physical and mental symptoms and more.

With at least 320 surveys completed, officials said the main symptoms included headache, anxiety, cough, fatigue and skin irritation.


Heather wants to get out of the danger zone. But his search for another house or apartment goes nowhere. She says that many places are taking advantage of the situation and “are paying double or triple what we are paying”.

She recalls growing up in East Palestine, a blue-collar community in the Appalachian foothills an hour northwest of Pittsburgh. Before the derailment, it was considered perfect for a family.

“It was quiet,” she says. “You could go to ball games. You could let the kids out to play and you’d be out at night and you’d hear the crickets, the frogs. The people were friendly.”

The local economy appeared to be recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now, this happened … and it just came back,” he says. “People don’t want to come here. They’re afraid.”

Sherry and her husband are also considering leaving.

His living room is piled high with pallets of bottled water and he has replaced his dogs’ dishes, toys and beds. She mostly keeps them at home now.

But as long as she’s around, she’s determined to hold the railroad company and the government accountable. “They think we’re … small-town boys,” she says.

“They keep telling us that it’s good down here, the air quality. Now, I’d like to see them come here to live in houses, especially right behind the place of the crash, see how they like it, and how much they feel safe.”

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