As chemicals fill the air and seep into the ground in eastern Ohio, resident farmers and consumers worry about the long-term effects on food safety.
“The big issue is what I am now going to be producing, is it safe?” a local farmer told WKBN27.
On Feb. 3, a train derailed in East Palestine, OH, resulting in the leaking of toxic chemicals. Ten of about 50 of the derailed cars were carrying liquid vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate. On Sunday evening, Feb. 5, residents of the small town were urged by authorities to evacuate over the risk of an explosion. The following day, crews conducted a “controlled release” of the chemicals, causing a large plume of black smoke.
Food producers and consumers are asking questions about the effects of the release of these chemicals on food safety and the impact on crops and livestock.
Ohio has about 75,000 farms, and nearly 90 percent of those farms are run by families or individuals. Ohio ranks first nationally in the production of swiss cheese, second in egg production, and third in tomatoes and pumpkins. Ohio is fifth in the nation in bell pepper yield, sixth in sweet corn and cucumbers, and eighth in the number of chickens sold.
Though not much is known or being disclosed at the moment, the FDA does have some regulations when comes to vinyl chloride in plastic food containers.
The Ohio Farm Bureau and Ohio Department of Agriculture have not made official comments on the train crash. However, they requested and received permission for residents to return to feed their livestock.
Since the evacuation order was lifted on Wednesday, there have been numerous reports of people experiencing a burning sensation in their eyes, animals falling ill, and streams of dead fish.
Officials have stated that the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink.
“All of the readings we’ve been recording in the community have been at normal concentrations, normal backgrounds, which you find in almost any community,” James Justice, a representative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said at a briefing on Feb 8.
On Feb. 12, the EPA released a full list of the toxic chemicals carried in the derailed cars.
The EPA has been monitoring the air for several other hazardous chemicals, including phosgene and hydrogen chloride, which are released by burning vinyl chloride. Exposure to phosgene can cause eye irritation, dry burning throat, and vomiting; while hydrogen chloride can irritate the skin, nose, eyes, and throat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to the Ohio Department of Health, once it is in the environment, vinyl chloride is broken down by sunlight in a few days and changed into other chemicals, like formaldehyde. Most vinyl chloride that is spilled in soil or surface water like lakes, ponds, and rivers evaporates into the air quickly. Some vinyl chloride can travel into groundwater where it will be broken down over time.
According to WLWT5, Greater Cincinnati Water Works has detected trace amounts of two industrial chemicals leaked into the Ohio river due to the train derailment in East Palestine. They are continuing to monitor the water quality.
Further along the river, West Virginia American Water is monitoring water quality and is taking precautionary steps by implementing its business continuity plans. According to WSAZ News Channel 3, this includes the completion of a 3,700-foot water line connecting to a temporary secondary intake on the Guyandotte River.
Health Departments around the train crash have told residents to reach out to their medical provider if they experience symptoms of chemical exposure.
“Now that we are entering into a long-term phase of this, people are going to be concerned about the long-term chronic exposure that comes at lower levels,” Karen Dannemiller, a professor at The Ohio State University who studies indoor air quality, told NPR.
Dannemiller explained that indoor spaces can be an important point of exposure. She urges East Palestine residents to take part in EPA’s at-home air screening.
She also recommends residents wipe down surfaces, especially areas that collect dust and wash items that absorb smells, such as bed sheets and curtains. She says residents should vacuum carefully in short bursts to prevent contaminants from moving into the air.
Air cleaners and face masks are likely no match for hazardous chemicals like vinyl chloride because of its tiny atoms, Dannemiller told NPR.
Dannemiller notes, the long-term effect of the chemical fallout is hard to predict.
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