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Researchers make troubling discovery months after the East Palestine train derailment: 'We drove around the town'

"One thing that's not quite as known is what are the long-term impacts."

Ohio train derailment chemical

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Experts investigating the chemical-laden train wreck that happened on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, found that a harmful toxin, missed by early monitors, was released in the aftermath. 

What happened? 

The Norfolk Southern train was carrying vinyl chloride, a toxic substance linked to certain cancers. Photos of the crash scene look as if a giant put a hand on each side of the train and crumpled it like an accordion, with fire and smoke billowing from the wreckage. The crash led to evacuations from the Ohio town. To prevent the vinyl chloride from exploding, officials released it from tanks and set it ablaze, according to an account from the Associated Press. 

Teams from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Texas A&M used mobile testing sites a couple of weeks after the crash, comparing their data to that recovered by the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) stationary testing, according to WTAE, ABC's Pittsburgh affiliate. 

The results, gathered during a two-day test period, found that the lung-irritating toxin acrolein was above acceptable limits. The mobile lab also found other chemicals, some of which were not being looked for by the EPA. The report spotlights a testing drawback that government officials are already addressing, all per the WTAE report

"One thing that's not quite as known is what are the long-term impacts of exposure to low levels of something like acrolein or some of these other irritants," Carnegie Mellon research professor Albert Presto told the television station. 

Why is the acrolein news important? 

Soon after the crash, the EPA began testing the air for signs of toxins using stationary monitors, which found toxins to be beneath safety limits, according to WTAE. 

But, the universities' research shows that mobile monitoring seems to do a better job, particularly where acrolein is concerned.  

"What we were able to do was drive from here to there and then sample as we drove around the town," Presto told WTAE. "And then we also went upwind and downwind."

The tech took a sample every second, finding that acrolein levels varied in different parts of East Palestine and peaked during certain times of the day, per the WTAE report. 

For their part, EPA experts have a progress page detailing the agency's response to the wreck, including work to ensure the air, water, and soil are protected. 

What is being changed? 

Presto told WTAE that EPA researchers are adding mobile testing to their toolkit. 

Presto had good news, concluding in the television channel's story that toxin levels in East Palestine have likely dropped. 

"I would be very surprised if concentrations were still elevated now," he said in the story.

In the long term, support for legislation — like the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023, which is intended to update railway infrastructure and increase safety training — is another route to safer track transportation. 

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