Would You Drink the Water?

by Dr. Michael Dorsey

Would you drink the water in East Palestine, OH? Would you want your children to drink that water?

State and federal officials and regulators have made a big deal about having a cup of water when they visit the most infamous village in the country. East Palestine, of course, is where a Norfolk Southern train derailed, February 3 2023, spilling hazardous chemicals and requiring a burning off of vinyl chloride, an especially nasty chemical that’s used in the production of polyvinyl chloride or PVC pipes.

Eleven of the 38 cars on the 150-car train that derailed were carrying hazardous chemicals.

In addition to vinyl chloride the train was carrying: butyl acrylate; ehtylhexyl acrylate; ethylene glycol monobutyl ether; and isobutylene. Environmental defenders have long fought against the liquidized natural gas “bomb trains” that go through the hearts of so many communities – many of them low-income and minority communities.

Read the new report on PVC and infrastructure.

We can now add these rolling chemical “bomb trains” to the list of hazards we do not want near our homes, schools, and businesses.

While Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) sent daily updates, and held press conferences, and put in facetime with residents—in the aftermath of the disaster, many questions remain outstanding. The two most prominent:

  • Have all the chemicals on the train – either those in cars that derailed and in cars that remained upright – been publicly listed?
  • What independent experts have state and federal officials brought in to conduct drinking water testing?

Purdue University Prof. Andrew J. Whelton, an expert in post-disaster, water chemical contamination events, visited East Palestine – at his own volition and not by the invitation of state or federal officials.

Prof. Whelton has been on the ground at some of the most notorious water-contamination events such as the spill of a coal processing chemical in Charleston, WV; the Marshall Fire in Colorado; and Paradise, CA, where the town’s drinking water supply became contaminated with benzene most likely from melted and overheated plastic pipes.

There are some frightening similarities between these catastrophic public health events. See if you can spot them (emphasis added).

From Chemical & Engineering News:

“The state asked the testing laboratory for only the benzene results of its gas chromatography analysis. But Whelton asked for all the results and saw so many contaminants that ‘the chromatograph lit up like a Christmas tree,’ [Whelton] says. Other dangerous volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) in Paradise’s water included: naphthalene, styrene, toluene, and xylenes. ‘You need to know how to look for unknowns,’ Whelton says. ‘The state didn’t know what questions to ask—it’s a gap in policy.’

… “A key piece to the contamination puzzle was that the team found VOCs in service lines but not in the treatment plant or mains. Another was that many of Paradise’s service lines and water meters, both of which are commonly made of plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), burned and melted in the fire. These components are near or above the ground surface, making them more vulnerable to fire. Mains, in contrast, are buried deep enough to be protected from extreme heat.

“Whelton’s investigation pointed to several potential mechanisms for Paradise’s water contamination. Maybe the burned plastic pipes released VOCs into the water. Or maybe smoke and soot, which contain VOCs, got ‘sucked backwards and into the distribution system’ as it lost pressure because of fire damage, Whelton says. In both cases, VOCs could then spread to pipes that were undamaged but depressurized. Once in the system, VOCs can permeate PVC and HDPE, which Whelton likens to sponges where contaminants ‘get into spaces between [polymer] chains, hang out, and leach out.’

“The study showed that plastic pipes can contaminate water and that they don’t even have to burn to do so—they just need to get tremendously hot. For example, PVC started degrading significantly by 300 °C, undergoing dehydrochlorination and forming polyene chains, as well as benzene and toluene. PVC lost 40% of its mass by 400 °C and even more at 475 °C, as the double bonds in the polyene chains began to break and alkylated aromatics such as ethylbenzene and xylene formed. Likewise, by 300 °C, HDPE started degrading and generating VOCs.

“‘Plastic pipes are an important primary source of contamination in drinking water after wildfires,’ says Whelton, who continues to investigate and advise wildfire-ravaged communities, most recently those devastated by Colorado’s Marshall Fire in 2021–22.”

From the Ohio Capital Journal:

“Ohio and federal officials need to better communicate what they’re doing, why, and what they plan to do. It’s unclear what questions they are trying to answer. For a disaster this serious, little testing information has been shared.

“In the absence of this transparency, misinformation is filling that void. From a homeowner’s perspective, it’s hard to understand the true risk if the data is not shared.”

From local TV station WFMJ:

“Ohio U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance wrote a letter to the EPA, calling for them to monitor dioxins in East Palestine and the surrounding areas after the train derailment.

“Part of their letter sites the EPA, writing, “Dioxins are highly toxic, can interfere with hormones, and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, or damage to the immune system.,” adding, “the combustion of vinyl chloride can lead to the formation of dioxins.”

Vinyl Chloride is a toxic chemical that was released in the controlled burn.” 

And finally, from a CNN interview with Prof. Whelton:

“There’s a whole bunch of other chemicals that were out there including plastic and PVC plastic that caught on fire, burned and crated other chemicals.”

What are the common themes…?

  • Officials too often do not know what to test for or fail to timely release test results.
  • A brew of toxic chemicals stirred up by fire “create other chemicals.”
  • And a general lack of transparency by the very people we’re supposed to trust—is widespread across multiple, state to federal, government agencies.

Now, we ask again: would you drink the water in East Palestine?  Or in other communities across the country that are touched by the scourge of pollution from the manufacturing process to make PVC?