Q&A: Environmental health scientist Erin Haynes on potential impacts of the East Palestine disaster

Erin Haynes
Erin Haynes, Ph.D., is a professor of preventive medicine and environmental health.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 24, 2023)  On Feb. 3, a train carrying hazardous materials near East Palestine, Ohio, derailed. Following the crash, some of the chemicals were intentionally burned in a controlled explosion in an effort to manage the release of potential toxins.

The University of Kentucky College of Public Health’s Erin Haynes, Ph.D., is a trained environmental scientist and an expert in this area. Haynes is the Kurt W. Deuschle Professor of Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health. She also directs the UK Center for the Environment and is deputy director of the UK Center for Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences.

In light of this recent chemical spill, Haynes answered some frequently asked questions regarding the potential health impact of this disaster.

What have been the biggest initial health concerns in the aftermath of this crash?

Haynes: After the spill, a chemical called butyl acrylate was detected in several locations downstream from the crash site. While the concentration of this chemical has been highest near the crash, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that the amount in the water is below any damaging levels, and those levels decrease the further down the river you go.

Initially, the air was the major concern. When they performed the controlled burn of the chemicals, there were concerns about smoke and the chemicals in the air. Chemicals can mix in the air, and then at those high temperatures, byproducts or new chemicals can form, and then they fall onto the ground. I’ve not yet seen any data on these potential byproducts or how far they spread. I want to know, and I think we should know, how far the chemicals went. A soil analysis would help with that.

Initially were indoor air concerns. However, the EPA did go in and do a screen for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and they're not finding very high levels. Given that the vinyl chloride in air degrades very quickly, air is not the primary issue at this point in time. It’s time to turn attention to soil and long-term impacts on ground water and well water.

Should people living along the Ohio River be concerned about their drinking water?

Haynes: Right now, the concentrations of butyl acrylate are low enough that they don’t raise significant health concerns. But I recommend looking into the independent water treatment facilities that may be near you along the Ohio River and checking their capacities to filter out butyl acrylate. Activated carbon does an excellent job of removing and reducing that chemical in the drinking water.

I’ve been asked if residents who live along the Ohio River should be drinking bottled water. I don’t think that’s necessary right now, but if people still have concerns, they should take steps that make them feel more comfortable. If they feel better drinking bottled water for now, then they should do so.

Are your major concerns with long-term effects or acute effects in the immediate community and surrounding areas?

Haynes: Both! The East Palestine area is the site of highest exposure and will be the epicenter of acute effects and health issues. But this is something we will need to measure over time. As I mentioned earlier, it takes time for the chemicals from the explosion and burn to seep down to the well water, so we may not see evidence of all of the health impacts until later on down the road. The question in my mind is: “When will those chemicals enter the well water?” We should never say we’re done looking at this community for potential exposures and health impacts until we are certain the well water is not contaminated, which could take one to two years.

I want to add that anyone who is experiencing any symptoms from exposure should contact Poison Control Center and speak with a trained, professional environmental health physician. Symptoms may include skin irritation, asthma exacerbation, rashes on skin, or respiratory issues.

How long until the environment is safe again in the area of East Palestine?

Haynes: It’s a good question. I don’t know how long it will take; we need to do research to determine what types of chemicals formed during the burn and how people can be exposed to them. Families need this data so they can determine if they feel safe or not.

What sort of research are you wanting to do in this area?

Haynes: When a community is concerned about a particular exposure, I love to jump in and help them, either through data collection or providing things that are already known. I already have an ongoing research study in the nearby town of East Liverpool, which is very close to East Palestine. So when we heard about this train derailment, our team began thinking of ways we could help. We want to work with local and federal partners to collect data so we have a robust and coordinated effort to look at the community’s exposures and health outcomes.

One need I see is to have a health survey that would ask questions about where people live, the symptoms they’re experiencing, etc., and to follow their experiences and health symptoms over time.

I’m also exploring what types of sampling equipment we could use, if feasible, to get a more in-depth look at potential exposures in and around the homes of East Palestine.

What message do you have for people who live in the most affected area?

Haynes: I’m an Ohio resident; I’m from the Appalachian region. I’ve lived in Ohio all my life. My heart goes out to the people who experienced the trauma of surviving a disaster of that nature. And although they came back to their homes, if they don't feel comfortable or if they're experiencing health symptoms, then they should take that seriously and call the Poison Control Center.

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