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A Bleak Portrait of the East Palestine Disaster
Why Ohio might be the new Vietnam.
I’ve been hesitant to say much about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. It is certainly a major catastrophe, but the information is impossible to parse. The EPA is refusing to confirm whether it is even testing for dioxins, making it look like a coverup, but many of the opposing viewpoints have been unhinged. Also, I’m not a chemical engineer or a toxicologist, and they’re leery to talk. So who to trust?
With the help of Ari Allyn-Feuer and Stephanie Arnold, as well as recent investigations by others, we’re now able to provide some sobering information about the potential chemical exposure. Ari Allyn-Feuer has a Ph.D. in Bioinformatics from the University of Michigan and works in the AI department at GSK. Stephanie Arnold is an APRN working in psychiatry.
They’re also not chemical engineers or toxicologists, but Ari is a scientist and Stephanie is a healthcare professional, and both are well-versed in scientific research. I’m just the guy who put this together.
Since we’re not domain experts, we’ll let actual experts speak for themselves with minimal commentary.
Speaking of experts, it’s worth your time to watch Erin Brockovich’s recent press conference in East Palestine, especially the last few minutes with hydrologist Bob Bowcock, who we’ll be quoting throughout.
Many chemicals were released in the derailment, but the key point of this post is about a major class of toxic chemicals that will probably be harming people in at least parts of the Ohio valley for many decades: dioxins.
What are dioxins and why are they a problem?
Dioxins were likely released when the vinyl chloride was burned at the derailment site. From the Associated Press:
Linda Birnbaum, a leading dioxins researcher, toxicologist and former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, said that burning vinyl chloride does create dioxins. Other experts agreed the accident could have created them.
"Dioxins....appear whenever any combination of the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and chlorine reacted together at temperatures between 300 C° and 500 C°." — Olie, Vermeulen, Hutzinger (1977)
From the World Health Organization:
Dioxins are environmental pollutants. They belong to the so-called “dirty dozen” - a group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Dioxins are of concern because of their highly toxic potential. Experiments have shown they affect a number of organs and systems.
Once dioxins enter the body, they last a long time because of their chemical stability and their ability to be absorbed by fat tissue, where they are then stored in the body. Their half-life in the body is estimated to be 7 to 11 years. In the environment, dioxins tend to accumulate in the food chain. The higher an animal is in the food chain, the higher the concentration of dioxins.
In summary, dioxins:
Are highly toxic
Last a long time
Are absorbed by fat tissue
Accumulate in the food chain
“Yes, it will be uptaken into plants,” Bowcock told the audience in East Palestine. “Everyone in this room has dioxin in their bloodstream.”
What do dioxins do?
Dioxins are extremely toxic. The Red Guide to Recovery, a publication aimed at firefighters, calls dioxins “the most hazardous substance in structure fire environments,” and “scientists say the toxicity of TCDD is exceeded only by radioactive waste,” with the following health effects:
Chloracne causes patchy darkening of the skin and altered liver function. Long-term exposure is linked to a vast array of diseases and ailments, including impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system, and reproductive functions.
Other adverse health effects may include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, porphyria, endometriosis, early menopause, reduced testosterone and thyroid hormones, altered immunologic response, skin, tooth, and nail abnormalities, altered growth factor signaling, and altered metabolism. Diseases which have been linked to dioxin seem endless. Ingesting dioxin can also result in congenital malformations, spontaneous miscarriages, and a fatal, slow wasting syndrome similar to AIDS. Dioxin is strongly suspected of contributing to pathology of the urinary and hematological systems, growths in the colon, gallbladder complications, multiple myeloma, and lung, larynx and prostate cancer.
How bad is this?
Bowcock told the audience in East Palestine: “Based on over 30 years of experience, you’re in a situation that you’re going to be dealing with for the rest of your lives if you stay here.”
Dioxins were the causative agent behind Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.
How much dioxin was spread in Ohio?
In Vietnam, the spread of about 167kg of dioxin contamination in Agent Orange defoliants used in the war ultimately contributed to up to 700,000 deaths of US veterans and Vietnamese people in the 50 years after the war (estimates vary somewhat).
How much dioxin was spread in Ohio?
We’ll try to calculate (very, very loosely—and our assumptions and priors may be wrong) dioxin exposure from the incineration of these train cars:
Five cars contained vinyl chloride. Four cars contained PVC. PVC produces great deal of dioxin when incinerated, and an open burn produces ideal conditions for this to occur.
9 tankers of PVC and VC
31,000 gallons each
279,000 gallons, all burned equals about 962 tons of vinyl chloride.
At 8920ng/g (the highest published figure) we get 8.6 kg of dioxins spewed over this region, about 5% of the amount spread in Vietnam.
If exposure in Ohio scales similarly, and if mitigation measures in Ohio are as poor as they were in Vietnam, this could, in theory, yield tens of thousands of deaths downstream.
This is only a worst-case scenario, on the assumption that dioxin production was at a maximum among published numbers. Published numbers include:
207 ng/g in a well-configured incinerator
824 ng/g from PVC alone under low-CO conditions
8920 ng/g from PVC alone under high-CO conditions
With this range of figures, in theory anywhere from 200g to 850g to 8.6kg of dioxins could have been produced from the burning of 962 metric tons of VC.
Open-air combustion of large quantities of VC in a ravine by the side of a railroad track is likely to be less efficient than controlled incineration, but were these conditions low or high CO, by the standards of Katami et al? We don’t know. A Cornell soil scientist interviewed by the press said the color of the plume suggested low-efficiency combustion, but we just don’t know.
Because of this, the higher numbers can’t be ruled out until we have real, solid measurements of dioxin concentrations from a variety of sampling sites in the area. Environmental toxicologists have to do their work before we can have any firm conclusions. Until then, the possibility that about 8kg of dioxins were released in Ohio has to be considered a live possibility.
Considering we measure exposure to dioxins in picograms, this is a problem. This derailment may have just Agent Oranged a large area, and if not mitigated it could kill and disable tens of thousands of people in the decades to come.
Where did the dioxins go?
In Vietnam, 167kg of dioxins were spread over large fractions of the country, which has a total area of 120,000 square miles. For comparison, the entire Ohio River Valley (pictured in the map below), is about 190,000 square miles, comparable in size.
But the dioxins in Ohio won’t be spread evenly over the whole valley; they’ll wind up in specific places. The dynamics of dioxin spread aren’t perfectly understood, but they seem to involve three major processes:
The initial fire and plume of smoke and debris will deposit dioxin over some set of areas, including the burn site and wherever the debris fell out. Some news reports have indicated that the smoke plume mostly traveled Northeast from East Palestine.
From there, ground and surface waters will spread dioxin where they flow and diffuse.
Where dioxins land, they will begin to bioaccumulate up the food chain.
So, the worst dioxin levels might be found in animals that fed in the areas downstream from the burn site and locations where smoke from the plume landed.
While experts will be able to make models, estimates, and guesses about the outcomes of these processes, even they will have limited insight until they have real measurements. And we, so far, have not even had the benefit of much candid expert opinion.
Another thing Bowcock noticed that he’s never seen before: the State of Ohio has determined that the groundwater in East Palestine has zero protection from contamination.
We don’t know where the chemicals are going. Water sources downstream of the spill site will likely be contaminated, but we don’t know yet exactly what those are, and it’s going to be up to researchers to find out.
Who is going to fix it?
Who’s supposed to fix it? The EPA. Will they? Probably not.
While Erin Brockovich and other independent scientists and activists have been scrambling to conduct independent dioxin testing of water and soil samples collected in and around East Palestine, so far no data has been released. For its part, the EPA has not even confirmed that they are doing or planning any testing at all. They will likely only even begin to act once pressure has mounted due to independent data showing that the problem is more serious than they have acknowledged.
The EPA can’t fix something it’s not even looking for.
We’ll refer you to Bob Bowcock’s portion of the aforementioned press conference.
“You’re looking at the potential of dioxin exposure for 5-10 years,” Bowcock said.
He related the story of a similar derailment in Le Roy, New York, only at about a third of the scale of the East Palestine disaster. The EPA didn’t make it a superfund site until the 1990s. In 2011, Bowcock discovered that the EPA contractor had put contaminated soil in barrels and left them in the bushes. They eventually rusted out and re-contaminated the area.
Additionally, there are many who seem to think the residents of East Palestine are getting their just desserts.
Bowcock tried to offer some helpful advice for those in East Palestine:
Dust your house thoroughly, and keep it dusted
Change your HVAC filter immediately and then every week after for a few weeks
Keep your windows closed if you’re near a body of water that is being aerated
Keep children away from the contaminated sites
In reality, those are only slight mitigations and even then, they’re hard to maintain. And we don’t yet know how much dioxin was released, or where.
What can I do if I live in East Palestine?