New Yorkers might find eerily familiar some of the reports out of last month’s train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Headaches, sore throats, and watery eyes. Questions as to whether individuals living and working in the area, and those cleaning up the site, are at risk. The lingering smell.
The Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train sent dozens of train cars, some carrying hazardous chemicals, off the tracks. Early on, some areas were temporarily evacuated as authorities conducted a controlled release and burn of some chemicals to prevent an explosion. As people returned, and as responders began to clean up, health worries mounted.
First responders and lower Manhattan residents also worried about their health in the days and weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, as thick smoke and an acrid smell continued to fill the air and toxic dust continued to cling to shoes and pants. Those concerns bubbled to the surface during a community forum one month later, where talk of the World Trade Center cough and as-of-then unanswerable questions about the long-term impacts took center stage.
We know now that the 9/11 toxins had deadly consequences; thousands have died from related illnesses.
But that wasn’t clear in the immediate aftermath.
Initial reports in East Palestine, from both the Environmental Protection Agency and independent researchers, found no immediate significant health or environmental threat. University researchers from Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon found that levels of chemicals like benzene and vinyl chloride were below what’s considered risky — and there were no so-called “hot spots.” But the levels of another chemical, acrolein, were far higher than they should have been. And there’s still more testing to do.
It’s not unusual for health concerns to percolate after a disaster. They’ve emerged often after weather-related catastrophes, like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, when worries about mold and bacteria, and the risk of contaminated food and water, lasted long after the waters receded. Mental health concerns lingered even longer. Post-Katrina, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attempted to oversee the public health response and tracked thousands of patients in the short term.
But the long-term monitoring efforts were not as defined.
Ten months after the Sept. 11 attacks, in July 2002, New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene established a health registry to begin monitoring the medical condition of first responders, survivors and others. In the years that followed, an uphill battle for funding and coverage ensued — a battle that continues even now. The federal World Trade Center Health Program now includes more than 120,000 first responders, residents, workers, schoolchildren and others exposed to the toxic air. An ever-growing list of diseases are covered, so that those who are sick or become sick can receive proper care and be compensated for their medical costs.
More than a decade ago, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown supported the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, even when others did not, Now, he and new Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance are calling on the CDC to monitor East Palestine and begin the assessments necessary “to establish a medical baseline for the community.”
In East Palestine, questions outnumber answers. There’s one thing New York’s 9/11 survivors and first responders could tell those in Ohio: Don’t wait before you start trying to find answers.
Columnist Randi Marshall's opinions are her own.