Let me be clear: emergency response is hard. There are a lot of decisions that need to be made in an equivalent of the “fog of war” — the idea that there is far more uncertainty than we’d want to make decisions.
In the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment, several things happened. Among the more important events was the controlled burn of the chemicals, releasing pressure on chemical tank cars (a net positive), while generating a complex mixture of environmental contaminants that polluted the air, the soil, and the surface water in the region.
And I want to focus on this idea of a complex mixture of chemicals — that’s important. Because we are not talking about people being exposed to a single chemical as a result of this derailment. They were exposed to a number of chemicals, simultaneously, that were released and produced by the fire (or controlled burn if you will). These mixtures included thousands of chemicals that weren’t present originally at the site — generated as a result of the combustion (fire). Although the burn was controlled, the production of chemicals was not.
Today (March 28, 2023), the US House of Representatives began its focus on identifying what lessons should be learned. And today, I want to focus on the statement from the US EPA early on that, “The air is safe to breathe.” I want to examine how EPA came to that statement in a little more detail.
So, first, go to this video (and specifically start at 2:08:55):
And before I go further, let me be clear on a couple items: 1) everyone should watch the full hearing, and 2) I was impressed by questions from both sides of the aisle, Republican and Democrat. They all care deeply about this issue.
So back to how EPA determined the air was safe.
Representative Miller-Meeks from Iowa asked a great question in the video above. She’s trying to get at whether or not EPA used a mixtures assessment to determine the air was safe to breathe, or if EPA used a single chemical assessment, like they did following 9/11.
Regional Administrator Shore, from the US EPA, stated that the equipment used to monitor or “test” the air can measure a bunch of chemicals. That’s not a satisfactory answer to Representative Miller-Meeks question — the question wasn’t if the equipment could test for chemicals, the question was if the equipment could determine if the mixture was safe. So, unfortunately this didn’t give us the information we needed.
It appears EPA is not looking at the mixture as a whole; rather, EPA is making determinations based on single chemicals alone. I get this impression based on my experience with the Agency and based on what I heard in other parts of the video.
And the reason why I have the concerns about EPA saying the air is safe when they haven’t looked at mixtures (which is what they should be looking at, as the people in East Palestine are being exposed to mixtures and not single chemicals at a time) is brought up by Representative Barragan of California:
There is this discrepancy between EPA saying the air is safe to breathe, the soil is safe, and the water is safe to drink, and the fact that people are still reporting significant health effects.
To me, and many of my toxicology colleagues, the answer is clear and apparent: this is a mixtures toxicology issue.
Determining safety based on looking at single chemicals at a time is not sufficient, and it’s not the best science. The United States needs better Emergency Response Toxicology capabilities. The United States needs a rapid emergency response mixture testing capability. We need our emergency response agencies to focus on assessing mixtures of actual concern, not just a few chemicals and saying, “Each one of these chemicals is below the safety threshold so the air is safe.” No — it’s a mixture. Assess it like a mixture!