Newly released data shows soil in the Ohio town of East Palestine – scene of a recent catastrophic train crash and chemical spill – contains dioxin levels hundreds of times greater than the exposure threshold above which Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists in 2010 found poses cancer risks.
The EPA at the time proposed lowering the cleanup threshold to reflect the science around the highly toxic chemical, but the Obama administration killed the rules, and the higher federal action threshold remains in place.
Though the dioxin levels in East Palestine are below the federal action threshold and an EPA administrator last week told Congress the levels were “very low”, chemical experts, including former EPA officials, who reviewed the data for the Guardian called them “concerning”.
The levels found in two soil samples are also up to 14 times higher than dioxin soil limits in some states, and the numbers point to wider contamination, said Linda Birnbaum, a former head of the US National Toxicology Program and EPA scientist.
“The levels are not screaming high, but we have confirmed that dioxins are in East Palestine’s soil,” she said. “The EPA must test the soil in the area more broadly.”
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The data probably confirms fears that the controlled burn of vinyl chloride in the days after the train wreck in the town created dioxin and dispersed it throughout the area, experts say, though they stressed the new data is of limited value because only two soil samples were checked.
The train crash in East Palestine and its toxic aftermath has become a major issue in the US with locals and activists decrying a lack of action by both the government and the train operator, Norfolk Southern. The state of Ohio has now sued the rail giant over the derailment, calling it one of a “long string” of incidents involving the company.
Dioxins are a class of chemicals that are a byproduct produced when chlorine is burned, which is a common industrial process in making products like PVC.
The chemicals are highly persistent and can accumulate and stay for years in the environment or human bodies. Among other health issues, the compounds are linked to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, nervous system disorders and other serious health problems. Soil and food contamination are considered to be among the most common exposure routes.
After resisting calls for weeks to test for dioxins, the EPA on 3 March announced it would order Norfolk Southern to do so. Separately, Indiana last week commissioned testing of East Palestine soil because one of the state’s landfills is storing it. The testing was conducted by what Birnbaum characterized as a reputable laboratory.
According to the local newspaper Ohio Star, animals have been found dead across Ohio State Parks after the East Palestine Train Derailment.
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