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PSR PA's Statement on the East Palestine, Ohio Train Derailment

On February 3rd, a train carrying hazardous substances derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The Norfolk Southern train was carrying toxic materials and known carcinogens, such as vinyl chloride.

The impacts of this environmental disaster on residents of East Palestine has made national headlines, but the concern for personal safety has made its way across state borders to Pennsylvania. State lines mean little to air and water pollution, which are not stationary. With the chemical plume mere miles from Pennsylvania, residents have reason to be concerned. Disaster relief discussions and petitions frequently signal “this could’ve happened here,” but for those living in western Pennsylvania, it feels like it did.

With a history of toxic industries in the region, residents in southwest Pennsylvania are already concerned with air and water quality. Unconventional gas drilling, or fracking, has heavily plagued communities for decades. Numerous studies have shown links to negative health outcomes. A newly diagnosed string of rare cancers has families worried and looking for answers from a Pennsylvania Department of Health commissioned study. Prior to the recent environmental catastrophe in East Palestine, people here were getting sick.

Industry old and new has sparked discussion over health impacts. From a recently online cracker plant in Beaver County drawing regional comparisons to “cancer alley” in Louisiana, to the well known polluter, Clairton Coke Works, and its long history of air pollution violations, locals are all too familiar with carrying the weight of industry underregulation. For those already suffering health impacts from air pollution and industry, the looming noxious cloud feels like a heavy burden to bear.

Even though the calls for long term health studies along with short term monitoring are valid, we should not follow the pattern of waiting for health disparities to surface to acknowledge and act on environmental health disasters. Exposure to air pollutants can take months to years to see serious health effects. Residents are expected to bear the burden of proof, rather than the government using the science and knowledge we currently have to respond and prevent disasters like the Ohio train derailment from occurring. We already knew the train was carrying substances dangerous to human health. We already know that compounds found in industrial air pollution can cause significant health harms.

Toxic industries have been given exemptions and excuses for far too long, leaving fenceline communities to beg for assistance from the government. It is time that government institutions take action to stop these preventable health harms. We should not wait for people to be “sick enough” to warrant intervention. The appropriate response to disasters such as the train derailment in East Palestine, is to acknowledge the harm these industries are causing and move away from a system that creates hazardous conditions. Prevention here is the key, and no amount of emergency response will provide long term safety or reassurance to Pennsylvania or Ohio citizens. This entire scenario in Ohio was avoidable, as are the environmental health burdens happening on our side of the state line.

It is time for Pennsylvania to prioritize people’s health.

Laura Dagley, BSN, RN

Environmental Health and Medical Writer

Physicians for Social Responsibility PA

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1 Comment

lucus sinclair
lucus sinclair
Mar 10, 2023

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