A mobile air pollution monitoring lab at the site of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, found a potential chemical of concern at higher-than-normal levels, a team of scientists from Carnegie Mellon University and Texas A&M said in a update for Friday. The researchers said it was not yet clear what effects the chemical acrolein could have on residents’ health.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave residents the all-clear to return to their homes shortly after the Feb. 3 derailment and subsequent controlled burn. The agency, along with local and state environmental experts, takes samples from the air, soil, water and from residents’ homes. Many residents have reported worrying health symptoms in the weeks following the derailment, including rashes and headaches.
The information in the new analysis was collected on February 20 and 21, university researchers said. The mobile lab, housed in a truck, sucks air over the driver’s head as it moves slowly on public roads. It collects data points every second, the team said, and the unit has sensitive equipment that can measure pollution in parts per billion. They can identify even minute concentrations of pollutants that might otherwise go undetected.
The laboratory found that the values of benzene, toluene, xylenes and vinyl chloride were below the minimum risk levels for intermediate exposures as defined by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The team said Friday that no “hot spots” were detected from their mobile sampling and the analysis confirms data collected by the US Environmental Protection Agency between February 8 and February 22.
“We didn’t see any hotspots, which I think is probably a positive,” said Albert Presto, an associate research professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon’s Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation, who works on the university’s chemical tracking effort. in East Palestine. “I would say there is a need for further research and continued sampling” because of potential danger, particularly from the chemical acrolein.
Acrolein was also below the minimal risk level, but was the only chemical that was particularly high, the researchers said. Compared to levels in downtown Pittsburgh, levels in the East Palestine area ranged from five times lower to three times higher on February 20.
Acrolein is used to control plants, algae, rodents and microorganisms. It is a clear liquid at room temperature and is toxic. can cause inflammation and irritation of the skin, respiratory tract and mucous membranes, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although acrolein was not on the list of chemicals carried in the derailed train cars, it can be created during the burning of fuels, wood and plastics, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon researchers say the test method the EPA uses to measure acrolein at the scene has a threshold that is too high to detect health-related levels.
“The current methodology used by the EPA is not very sensitive, and acrolein is a difficult chemical to assess,” said Dr. Ivan Rusyn, director of Texas A&M University’s Superfund Research Center, a member of the team that did the analysis. “That’s potentially not the only concern. You have to look more broadly at other types of contaminants, and that allows for a mobile lab.”
University researchers previously shared results from an initial analysis of EPA data suggesting nine of the dozen chemicals the agency was monitoring are higher than would normally be found in the area. The researchers said these could potentially pose a long-term health problem for residents.
CNN has reached out to the EPA for comment on the new analysis. On Monday, an agency spokesman told CNN that the agency’s air monitoring data shows that levels of the monitored chemicals “are below levels of concern for adverse health effects from short-term exposures.” The agency did not expect the chemicals to remain at high levels in the area, but said it is “committed to remaining in East Palestine and will continue to monitor the air inside and outside homes to ensure these levels remain safe with as time went by”.
Rusyn said they are pleased the EPA said it is also developing a mobile lab to do additional testing. Scientists should continue to monitor acrolein and other compounds in the region to determine if exposures persist, he said.
“The reason to continue testing — at least at certain intervals after the event — to establish those trends, part of that is really for communication purposes, to really reassure residents that you know the level and explain to them where the levels are. after the disaster they were compared to some sort of baseline,” Rusyn said.
Racine said it’s too early to know if the elevated levels are having an impact on residents’ health.
“We cannot draw many conclusions about potential health effects because the levels reported are below detection limits, but the health limits are also below detection limits. So there are additional or different methods that are more sensitive, take more time, and are more complex, and we hope the agencies will use some of those methods in the future as well,” Rusyn said.