Could dioxins be in the soil after the East Palestine train derailment? Experts weigh in.
Regulators have been testing the air and water for contamination near the site of the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, along the Pennsylvania border. But experts say the soil and surfaces should also be tested for dioxins, a group of toxic chemicals that can have long-term effects on the health of the area’s animals and people.
David and Elaine Anderson and their seven kids run Echo Valley Farm in New Galilee, Beaver County, Pennsylvania, where they sell grass-fed beef, raise chickens for eggs and meat, and grow a big garden.
“We grow about 80 percent of our food here,” David Anderson said. “Our Thanksgiving dinners, we pride ourselves on 100 percent home-raised everything on the table.”
On Monday, Feb. 6, like most people near the Norfolk Southern train derailment, they heard there would be a planned release of vinyl chloride from the derailed tanker cars. Anderson, a retired air traffic controller and self-proclaimed “wind nerd,” sent up his drone to get a look at what was going on 4.2 miles to their west.
“When I got the drone up, I could see this massive and getting bigger cloud, thick black, couldn’t see through it,” Anderson said, adding that the sky looked ominously like nighttime.
After dinner, their son went to the porch and told them how bad it smelled outside.
“Then we went out, and instantly, you know, my mouth was burning, and my tongue was starting to swell up, lips were burning, eyes were watering,” he said. The family got their bags together and quickly dove seven miles north to the home of their adult daughter, who is pregnant.
“But we had to leave all the animals behind,” Anderson said. “It was about 100 animals or so on this farm, and you can’t take them. That’s a pretty difficult decision.”
Black soot causes worry
Anderson returned to feed the dogs, donkeys, chickens and cows, and the whole family returned home a few days after the evacuation.
“We were walking around and just checking stuff, and my daughter and I were out here, and that’s when I noticed soot on the cars, or the black residue, whatever it was on the cars,” he said.
Other people in the area reported finding black soot like that on their cars, playground equipment, and even in their houses.
Anderson wiped some of it up with a cloth, concerned that it might be contaminated. His lawyer sent it for testing. Anderson is a lead plaintiff in one of the numerous class action lawsuits filed by residents against Norfolk Southern.
Anderson said he is worried about what his 25 cattle breathed in, and what will happen when it’s time for them to graze grass on the surrounding fields. Now, he just wants answers.
“Something happened, and my animals experienced something as well. People eat them. I mean, it’s beef. So you want to know if it’s okay, if it’s safe,” he said.
Regulators comment on soot testing
According to regulators and the rail company, tests show the air and water in East Palestine are safe. At a press conference on Feb.16, ten days after the burning of vinyl chloride, regulators said they were not testing any surfaces.
“That testing is not currently being done, in terms of surface testing by the state of Ohio,” said Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel. “We haven’t found residue where we’ve been looking. The nature of the controlled release was such that those materials combusted and dissipated into the air.”
The potential danger of dioxins
“From a long-term impact of this, you have to look at the soot,” said Matt Simcik, an environmental chemist at the University of Minnesota who studies the movement of chemicals like vinyl chloride in air and water.
It’s bad enough to have vinyl chloride escape into the environment, he explained, but burning it can create even more problems, like dioxins.
“Dioxins are a molecule that we know we can get from burning plastics,” Simcik explained. “And dioxin was also a major component of things like Agent Orange, the defoliant in Vietnam. So, dioxins are not good.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, dioxins are a group of chemicals formed from burning things like wood, coal or oil. They persist in the environment, and background levels are found throughout the world. Dioxins are highly toxic and can interfere with hormones, cause cancer, damage the immune system, and cause reproductive and developmental problems.
U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) sent a letter to the federal EPA and Ohio EPA urging them to immediately coordinate regular testing and monitoring for dioxins in East Palestine and the surrounding area.
Because regulators have not tested for it, it’s not known for sure if dioxins were created and spread through the community in that thick black cloud. If that did happen, dioxins would fall out with soot from the plume, Simcik said.
“If you see soot, you’re going to have nasty contaminants stuck to that soot because that’s how it was formed. You’re forming these things at the exact same time, and these chemicals like to stick to things like soot,” he said. “If I were in charge of the world, I would be sampling that for contaminants to make sure that people are not being exposed to this stuff.”
Concern for dioxins in soil
The soils in this area should also be tested for dioxins, according to Murray McBride, an environmental toxicologist and professor emeritus at Cornell University who studies the uptake of contamination in soil by crops, animals and humans.
“If you have grazing cattle or grazing livestock of any kind, they could pick up these toxins,” McBride said.
Dioxins can concentrate in the fat of an animal, he explained, and wind up in the eggs of a chicken or the milk of a cow. The EPA estimates that 90 percent of human dioxin exposure is from eating meat, dairy products and fish.
“Grass-fed beef and grazing dairy animals, they’re all going to be susceptible to this kind of contamination. So that can get into the meat,” McBride said.
Regarding cows eating the grass, McBride said dioxins would tend to stay in the soil, so even if the ground is contaminated, new grass and other above-ground crops would be safe to eat.
“The only problem is if it gets dry and you have strong winds, some dust can be blown up onto the grass and or onto various crops,” he said, then cows could eat it. “So there is some possibility for contamination, but the crop itself does not take up these chemicals in any significant amount at all.”
He said he would not plant root vegetables in soil with dioxins, as carrots and other root vegetables could more easily become contaminated.
To know for sure if the soil is contaminated with dioxins, McBride advocates for it to be tested wherever people felt the effects of the plume or found soot or residue from it. But, he said, testing for dioxins is a specialized test and can be expensive, with a limited number of labs that perform them.
Some environmental groups are working to assist residents with these tests. The Ohio EPA said it is developing a long-term remediation plan that will include soil testing.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.