(NewsNation) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told residents near the toxic train derailment in eastern Ohio that it is safe to return home. Still, some are alarmed and concerned, as fish in local bodies of water are dying.
About 50 cars of the Norfolk Southern freight train, including 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed on Feb. 3 in the Ohio village of East Palestine. No one was injured in the derailment, which investigators said was caused by a broken axle.
Three days after the accident, authorities burned vinyl chloride inside five tanker cars, sending hydrogen chloride and the toxic gas phosgene into the air. They said that burning was preferable to the threat of a larger explosion if nothing was done.
Environmental regulators have been monitoring the air and water in surrounding communities. They have said that, so far, the air quality remains safe, and drinking water supplies have not been affected.
But some residents have complained about headaches and feeling sick since the derailment.
Authorities warned the burning vinyl chloride — which was in five of the derailed cars — could send hydrogen chloride and phosgene into the air. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that gases associated with vinyl chloride are known carcinogens. Breathing the gases over long periods could be connected to brain, lung, and blood cancers, according to the agency.
NewsNation spoke with Silverado Caggiano, a hazardous material specialist, who said some chemicals released are carcinogens.
“There’s a lot of ‘what ifs,’ and we’re going to be looking at this thing 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the line and wondering, ‘Gee, cancer clusters could pop up, you know? Well water could go bad,'” said Caggiano.
NewsNation also obtained a video of dead fish in the Ohio river near East Palestine. Residents said they’ve also seen sick animals, and their homes and town are still covered in debris.
It’s possible the pollutants lowered dissolved oxygen levels in the water, basically suffocating the fish. But that hasn’t been confirmed, according to Wildlife Officer Supervisor Scott Angelo.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources will still need to investigate the death of the fishes, which could take up to a month while the agency deals with the emergency response.
The EPA, meanwhile, says hundreds of tests have confirmed the water and air are in good condition.
“The vinyl chloride: I know that’s the most common thing heard right now. That was below the detectable limit,” said Scott Wolfe, superintendent for East Palestine Water and Wastewater.
Renowned consumer advocate Erin Brockovich told NewsNation said she doesn’t believe those tests and that residents should be taking pictures and videos of everything they see.
“After 30 years of what I’ve been through and what this community is going through, they know. Come on, it’s vinyl chloride, it’s in the air, the fish are dying. Really? Does that give you comfort that you should be in the area? Probably not,” said Brockovich.
East Palestine Police said they are going door to door to check at-risk homes — those that obtain their drinking water from wells in the area.
Meanwhile, residents have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force Norfolk Southern to set up health monitoring for residents in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday by two Pennsylvania residents, calls for the rail operator to pay for medical screenings and related care for anyone living within a 30-mile radius of the derailment to determine who was affected by toxic substances released after the accident. The lawsuit also is seeking undetermined damages.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.