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Residents near the train derailment are told it's safe to go home. Is it?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So we heard the reassurances of the EPA, that people can smell chemicals, but it's not enough to be dangerous. We've heard the concerns of people in the community who say they're feeling sick. Now let's get an evaluation from Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Welcome to the program, sir.

PETER DECARLO: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: What if you were a resident of East Palestine, Ohio? Would you feel safe going back home?

DECARLO: Honestly, with the data that I've seen on the EPA response site, the answer is no. And there's a couple reasons for that. First off, I have two small children, and I'd be especially concerned for their health. And secondly, the air monitoring in the area just doesn't really - the air sampling, as well - doesn't really give me the information I need to understand whether or not there's still emissions from the site. And clearly, there are if people are still smelling fumes.

INSKEEP: OK, this is getting probably more technical than we can describe on the radio. But the essence of what I understand the EPA to be telling me, as a layman, is that there may be enough for you to smell, but there's not enough chemicals in the air and not enough concentration of chemicals to harm you. Are you telling me you don't see the same thing when you look at the same data?

DECARLO: So the EPA seems to be relying on air monitoring, and they make a distinction between air monitoring and air sampling. In air monitoring, they're walking around with these handheld devices, which are really not designed to make the appropriate measurements. They're not specific to the chemicals that are of concern. They kind of measure them all as one class. And they just do not have the appropriate sensitivity to give you the accurate idea of a concentration. They're also doing...

INSKEEP: You're telling me that they're not giving you enough information to be assured.

DECARLO: Correct. Absolutely. Yeah. They're also doing air sampling, which means they draw air into a stainless steel container. They take that container back to the lab. And that type of measurement can be done with very accurate assessment of what chemicals are present and at what concentrations. The problem with that is they're not doing it, or at least the data is not being posted, at areas at the accident site and downwind of the accident site. And that's the - those are the two key places that tell me what chemicals may be still being emitted from the site and what the appropriate risks are. And without that information, we really just can't assess the risk appropriately.

INSKEEP: Let's look at the other bits of evidence that we have and be frank about it. We have anecdotal information from people who say, I feel sick. And I don't mean to dismiss it at all by saying that it's anecdotal. But, of course, we know that people feel sick all the time. They may feel sick whether there are chemicals in the air or not. But we have this coincidence, possibly, or real connection between chemical smells in the air and people who feel sick. Do the symptoms you heard described sound like something that would happen to somebody who has some kind of chemical poisoning?

DECARLO: I don't know if I would call it poisoning, but certainly a sensitivity to that chemical. And I think the symptoms that people are describing are also consistent with what we understand the responses for these types of chemicals can be. So, yeah, I mean, I think that these are very real experiences from the people who are living and have moved back to the area.

INSKEEP: So if the EPA is listening this morning - and I bet somebody is - and they called you up and said, OK, we heard your complaint, what would you have me do, how would you answer them?

DECARLO: I would tell them I think the most important thing, from my perspective - and this is kind of what I do for a living is measure chemicals in the air - is - I would like to see a set of three measurements done repeatedly until they can show that there are no more emissions from the site. And one of those measurements should be upwind, so we know the air that's going towards the accident site. One measurement should be done at the measurement site - or at the accident site. And one measurement should be done downwind of the accident site. And if you have those series of three measurements, you know what chemicals are getting emitted at the accident site, if there are still chemicals being emitted, and what those concentrations look like downwind because on any given day, the wind could be coming from any direction. So...

INSKEEP: Peter DeCarlo of Johns Hopkins University. Thanks so much. Really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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