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Ohio train derailment: EPA requiring Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins in East Palestine

If dioxins are detected, the EPA will direct Norfolk Southern to conduct an immediate cleanup in coordination with state partners.

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Amid continuing heath concerns in East Palestine after last month's Norfolk Southern freight train derailment, state and federal environmental leaders have ordered enhanced testing.

Specifically, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it is ordering the railroad company to begin sampling for dioxins in the area. EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel announced the news in a joint letter to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and U.S. Sen. JD Vance (R-OH). 

"To date, EPA’s monitoring for indicator chemicals has suggested a low probability for release of dioxin from this incident," Regan and Vogel wrote. "To address any continuing concerns for potential release of dioxins in the local area resulting from the derailment, out of an abundance of caution EPA will continue to sample for indicator chemicals and will also require Norfolk Southern to begin sampling directly for dioxins."

The EPA says if dioxins are detected, the agency will take the following steps:

  • Share information with the public  
  • Determine whether the levels found poses any unacceptable risk to human health and the environment  
  • Direct Norfolk Southern to conduct immediate cleanup in coordination with state partners

In addition, the EPA says it will require Norfolk Southern to conduct a background study to compare any dioxin levels around East Palestine to dioxin levels in other areas not impacted by the train derailment. The agency adds that is also currently reviewing a draft plan by Norfolk Southern to develop a dioxin “fingerprint” for soil sampling.

"As we go forward with our work in East Palestine, and surrounding areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania, EPA will continue to monitor for any hazardous pollutants, including dioxins, that may be attributed to the train incident. We will also continue to hold Norfolk Southern responsible for the environmental harm it has inflicted on this community," Regan and Vogel added in their letter.

You can read the entire letter below.

Dioxins refer to a group of toxic chemical compounds that can persist in the environment for long periods, according to the World Health Organization.

They are created through combustion and attach to dust particles, which is how they begin to circulate through an ecosystem.

Residents near the burn could have been exposed to dioxins in the air that landed on their skin or were breathed into their lungs, said Frederick Guengerich, a toxicologist at Vanderbilt University.

Skin exposure to high concentrations can cause what’s known as chloracne — an intense skin inflammation, Guengerich said.

But the main pathway that dioxin gets into human bodies is not directly through something burning. It’s through consumption of meat, dairy, fish and shellfish that have become contaminated. That contamination takes time.

“That’s why it’s important for the authorities to investigate this site now,” said Ted Schettler, a physician with a public health degree who directs the Science and Environmental Health Network, a coalition of environmental organizations. “Because it’s important to determine the extent to which dioxins are present in the soil and the surrounding area.”


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