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5 things to know about responding to a chemical emergency like the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment

Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, U.S., February 6, 2023 in this screengrab obtained from a handout video released by the NTSB.

By Mahsa Ahmadi, associate specialist, Environmental Health, APHL

On the evening of February 3, 2023, a train operated by Norfolk Southern carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio posing serious concerns about the potential impact on the surrounding soil, water and air quality. While this emergency was a tragic event that severely affected both human health and the environment, the overall impact of the incident was mitigated by the response efforts of federal, state and local agencies. Chemical emergencies like this highlight the importance of rapid response from a range of public health partners and community members. Public health laboratories are often a key component of such response teams and help ensure the long-term health and safety of affected communities.

Here are five things to know about responding to chemical emergencies such as the East Palestine train derailment:

  1. No one organization or agency is in charge. In situations where no single organization has primary authority or sufficient resources, a Unified Command system may be established. All involved parties then work together to jointly establish objectives, prioritize and allocate resources, and effectively manage the incident. With the East Palestine train derailment, the Unified Command included US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Ohio EPA, Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency, the Village of East Palestine, and the Norfolk Southern Corporation. A number of cooperating and assisting agencies were involved, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Beaver County emergency management agencies. Interstate cooperation occurred between departments of environmental protection from Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, as well as Ohio and Pennsylvania departments of health and departments of agriculture. The Unified Command system enabled these agencies to work together and assist other supporting agencies to efficiently allocate resources and manage the incident.

  2. Environmental emergencies may also require human testing and treatment. Medical examinations for those in the community where the emergency occurred can be a piece of the response to incidents involving hazardous materials. Community investigations may be initiated by health officials in an affected community. In response to the East Palestine train derailment incident, the Ohio Department of Health collaborated with the Columbiana County Health Department and had assistance from the US Department of Health and Human Services to establish the East Palestine Health Assessment Clinic. The clinic provides free medical exams and offers additional services like mental health consultations for those who experienced the trauma of the emergency and toxicology consultations.

  3. Biomonitoring is extremely valuable but it can take time. Biomonitoringmeasures the amount of specific chemicals in an individual’s body by testing blood and urine, and can be used to identify the chemical exposure they have experienced. When samples are collected broadly and systematically along with exposure information, biomonitoring data can help identify and track trends such as geographic regions with higher-than-normal exposure levels or exposures to emerging contaminants. It can also let us know when exposure is no longer a concern and even whether it is the result of successful public health intervention. Fully understanding those trends takes time – months or even years depending on the situation – making it a valuable long-term tool. The state public health laboratory may conduct biomonitoring if they have the capability and capacity to do so. APHL recommends biomonitoring to assess exposure to environmental chemicals as a fundamental public health surveillance practice to be supported in every state.

  4. Chemical emergencies can be uniquely challenging compared to other types of public health emergencies. Chemical incidents require significant laboratory capacity and resources including highly trained personnel, specialized equipment, adequate funding and up-to-date facilities for testing and analysis. However, not all public health laboratories have the necessary resources and expertise to respond effectively to such incidents. A particular challenge is the time required to monitor effects after an event. Experts in the field of environmental and occupational health from the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health say it’s crucial to continue those efforts — and to track and support public health — for the long-term.

  5. Community support is vital. Equally important is the cooperation and support of the community, which enables the responding agencies to act effectively. According to US EPA, there are instances where the public plays a vital role in reporting hazardous substance incidents. It is important for community members to understand the signs indicating a chemical release. Community members encountering a hazardous substance release should prioritize personal safety, maintain a safe distance from the incident and promptly report it to local officials. This proactive approach helps prevent the situation from escalating further. The East Palestine, Ohio train derailment highlighted the critical role of community involvement and support. Following the incident, a community meeting drew in hundreds of individuals from nearby areas who shared their personal accounts, symptoms and worries. Notably, government officials from the US EPA, Ohio EPA and the Ohio Department of Health also attended the gathering, showing their commitment to engaging with the community. Such meetings provide a platform for community members to express their concerns, seek clarifications and stay informed about the ongoing response efforts.

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