PITTSBURGH — On the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, you'll find the nation's preeminent lab for exclusively studying vinyl chloride, where leading expert Dr. Juliane Beier has serious concerns.
"We don't know what a level would be that is considered safe," she admits.
Vinyl chloride is referred to as "PVC's plastic building block," but it became notable for a different reason in February, when 1.1 million gallons of the toxic chemical were released into the environment in East Palestine. More than a month after the train derailment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as contractors hired by Norfolk Southern continue to test the air, soil, and water.
So far, there are no reports of toxic chemicals above federal safety limits.
"EPA monitors have not detected any volatile organic compounds above levels of health concerns," EPA Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore declared last week during a U.S. Senate hearing.
However, Beier's own research could turn those federal standards on their heads.
"The EPA is basing that on the current risk levels that we have that are considered safe," Beier told 3News Investigates.
Beier's team studied mice subjected to levels of vinyl chloride that are, as she noted, currently considered safe. Over a period of weeks, all of the mice developed tumors.
Researchers also combined a high-fat "Western" diet with so-called "safe" levels of vinyl chloride, and found the exposure sped up liver disease and cancer. When asked if these results bring to question "how safe is 'safe'?" in regards to the chemical, Beier acknowledged she believes it should.
"We cannot dismiss any levels [of vinyl chloride]," she said.
Beier's major fear is that vinyl chloride could sneak into the groundwater over time, where — absent any light or heat — it would stick around for years then potentially be transported to homes and private wells before going back into the air.
About a mile and a half away at Carnegie Mellon University, researchers went into East Palestine to do their own independent testing for pollutants. What they found was concerning: Elevated levels of acrolein, a byproduct of burning vinyl chloride. Norfolk Southern decided to do just that in the aftermath of the wreck, with the goal of avoiding an uncontrolled explosion.
"The potential concern is more for longer term — you know, weeks to months to years," Dr. Albert Presto, a mechanical engineering research professor at Carnegie Mellon, explained.
And as East Palestine residents continue to hear reassurances from federal officials, scientists are urging the community to push for long-term testing until answers as to what's "safe" come into focus. As Beier says, "We need more data."