New Yorkers may be strangely familiar with some of the reports from last month’s rail derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Headache, sore throat and watery eyes. Questions about whether individuals who live and work in the area and those who clean up the area are at risk. A lingering smell.
In the year A derailment on the Norfolk Southern train line on February 3 sent dozens of railcars, some carrying hazardous chemicals, off the tracks. Some areas were temporarily evacuated as authorities seized and burned some chemicals to prevent an explosion. As people returned and responders began to clean up, health concerns increased.
First responders and residents of lower Manhattan worried about their health in the days and weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001, as thick smoke and foul odors filled the air and toxic dust continued to cling to shoes and pants. Those concerns surfaced in a community forum a month later, with talk of the World Trade Center and unanswered questions about its long-term effects.
We now know that the poisons of 9/11 had fatal consequences; Thousands died of infectious diseases.
But this was not immediately clear.
Preliminary reports from the Environmental Protection Agency and independent researchers in eastern Palestine find no immediate health or environmental concerns. University researchers from Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon found that levels of chemicals such as benzene and vinyl chloride were below those considered dangerous — and there were no so-called “hot spots.” But another chemical, acrobin, was much higher than it should be. And there are still more attempts.
It is not unusual for health concerns to worsen after a disaster. With weather-related disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, worries about mold and bacteria, and the dangers of contaminated food and water, have come up more often if the water lingers long after it’s gone. Mental health problems have been around for a long time. Post-Katrina, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tried to monitor the public health response and tracked thousands of patients over a short period of time.
But long-term follow-up efforts were not as described.
Ten months after the September 11 attacks, in July 2002, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene established a health registry to begin tracking the health status of first responders, survivors, and others. In the years that followed, there was an uphill battle for funding and coverage—a battle that continues. The federal World Trade Center Health Program now includes more than 120,000 first responders, residents, workers, school children and others exposed to toxic air. An ever-growing list of diseases is covered so that people who are sick or ill can get proper care and get reimbursed for their medical expenses.
A decade ago, Ohio Sen. Sherred Brown supported James Zadrogan’s 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, but now he and new Ohio Sen. JD Vance are calling on the CDC to start monitoring East Palestine. The essential evaluations “establish a medical baseline for the community.
There are more questions than answers in East Palestine. Here’s one thing for New York’s 9/11 survivors and first responders in Ohio: Don’t wait until you start trying to find answers.
Columnist Randy Marshall’s opinions are her own.