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CDC team studying health impacts of East Palestine train derailment fell ill during investigation

CDC team studying health impacts of East Palestine train derailment got sick during investigation
CDC team studying health impacts of East Palestine train derailment got sick during investigation 01:48

(CNN/KDKA) -- Seven U.S. government investigators briefly fell ill in early March while studying the possible health impacts of a toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The investigators' symptoms included sore throats, headaches, coughing and nausea -- consistent with what some residents in Ohio and across the border in Pennsylvania experienced after the Feb. 3 train derailment that released a cocktail of hazardous chemicals into the air, water and soil.

The investigators who experienced symptoms were part of a team conducting a house-to-house survey in an area near the derailment, and they immediately reported their symptoms to federal safety officers.

"Symptoms resolved for most team members later the same afternoon, and everyone resumed work on survey data collection within 24 hours. Impacted team members have not reported ongoing health effects," a CDC spokesperson said in the statement.

The illnesses are coming to light after repeated assurances by government officials and representatives from Norfolk Southern, the company that operated the train, that the air and drinking water in East Palestine is not hazardous to health.

It is not clear what caused the investigators' symptoms -- whether chemical exposure or something else, such as fatigue. But the team, some of whom are officers and physicians in the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service, found it suspicious that they became ill at the same time and with the same symptoms, according to an official familiar with the cases who spoke to CNN.

The official asked to not be identified because they are not authorized to share details of the incident; a CDC spokesperson confirmed information in the official's account, including the date, the number of people involved and the symptoms they experienced.

Because the investigators' symptoms improved soon after they left the area, the incident was not reported to the public, the official said, noting that reports of illnesses experienced by CDC personnel on the job wouldn't ordinarily be disclosed.

Still, experts in chemical exposures say the episode is significant.

"It adds confirmation that the symptoms reported by East Palestine residents are real and are associated with environmental exposures from the derailment and chemical fire," said David Michaels, an epidemiologist and professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health who ran the Occupational Safety and Health Administration between 2009 and 2017. He has not been involved in the investigation in East Palestine.

In a separate case in February, two contractors who were working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported symptoms related to strong odors and reported them to the site safety officer. The safety officer advised the contractors to step away from the area where they were working and monitor their symptoms, according to a statement sent to CNN by an EPA spokesperson. Their symptoms eased, and they returned to work at the site the same day. No other incidents have been reported by more than 100 EPA personnel deployed to the site, the statement said.

A spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency says its safety officer didn't receive any reports of staff experiencing symptoms while working in the area.

"Our FEMA Safety Officer who accompanied our teams on the ground did not receive any reports of staff experiencing symptoms," the statement said. 

Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Purdue University who has been traveling to East Palestine to conduct independent testing for the town, says he hopes the government agencies will continue to be forthcoming about the experiences of their staff and contractors in the area.

"I think it is important for not only government officials to communicate with each other, but also to communicate their experiences with the public, so that everybody can understand what's going on, and how help needs to be brought to East Palestine and the surrounding areas," Whelton told CNN.

Team experienced symptoms they were investigating

The cause of the Feb. 3 crash is still under investigation, but preliminary reports suggest that a wheel bearing on the train overheated, caught fire and failed -- sending 11 cars carrying more than a million pounds of hazardous chemicals off the tracks.

Chemicals spilled into the soil and air and into two small creeks that run through the town. A car carrying flammable vinyl chloride became unstable, sparking fears of a massive explosion. Nearby residents, including in Darlington Township, Beaver County, were evacuated while small holes were punched in the railcars so the vinyl chloride could be channeled into a trench where it was burned. A black mushroom cloud rose over the town and left ash and soot on cars and buildings for miles around.

Since Feb. 8, when the burning railcars were finally extinguished, state and federal officials have consistently told East Palestine residents that they have not detected any chemicals linked to the derailment in air or drinking water at levels that would threaten human health.

Yet people living in East Palestine and the surrounding area have continued to share stories about unexplained symptoms including headaches, sore throats, nasal congestion, bloody noses, skin rashes, coughs and eye irritation.

The government team that experienced symptoms is from the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, a branch that assesses the health impacts of chemical exposures. After the train derailment, ATSDR sent 15 people to East Palestine to conduct an Assessment of Chemical Exposure, known as an ACE investigation.

They often worked 18-hour days, going door-to-door to ask residents a detailed set of questions about where they spent their time in the days after the spill and what symptoms they or their pets may have experienced.

They worked in small groups of two and three to visit houses in the areas that they expected to be the most affected by the chemicals based on their proximity to the spill and two area creeks, Leslie Run and Sulphur Run, which have been heavily contaminated. They also surveyed parts of nearby Beaver County, Pennsylvania, which was downwind of the spill on the night of the derailment and the controlled burn of five tankers of vinyl chloride, a chemical used to make PVC pipe.

It's not clear what area the team members were in when they began to feel ill. The CDC spokesperson said the other eight members of the team did not experience symptoms.

The official who was familiar with the cases said team members reported their illnesses to the EPA's on-site safety officer, who advised them to return to their hotel in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles from East Palestine, and to the CDC's Office of Safety, Security and Asset Management, or OSSAM, the agency's workplace safety office. OSSAM agreed with the EPA assessment that team members should return to their hotel that night, March 6. The team then worked from their hotel on March 7, according to the official.

The CDC acknowledged the incident to CNN after posts began circulating on social media saying the team was sent home because they got sick; the official said that wasn't the case.

Members of the team began to rotate out of the area as they finished their work. Most of the team members left March 10, and the last member left March 16, according to the official.

Early results of the Ohio ACE survey show that more than half of the 514 residents who have taken it so far have experienced symptoms after the derailment. The top symptoms reported by residents in the area are headaches, reported by 74% of people taking the survey; anxiety (61%); coughing (53%); fatigue (53%); pain, irritation or burning of the skin (50%); and stuffy nose/sinus congestion (50%), according to the Ohio Department of Health. The questions on the survey ask about a "burning nose or throat" but didn't specifically mention sore throats or nausea.

The surveys can't prove that residents were exposed to harmful levels of chemicals or that those chemicals caused their symptoms. They are meant to be a snapshot, documenting the health of the community after an event that results in potentially hazardous exposures.

The ATSDR team reports the results of the surveys back to the state departments of health and may make recommendations based on the findings. The team is doing a total of three reports: one for Ohio, one for residents in Pennsylvania and a third on the first responders to the derailment.

Preliminary results are expected to be shared with the states in early April, with final reports released to the public within a few months.

As of March 28, ATSDR had conducted 1,002 ACE surveys: 686 for area residents and 316 for derailment responders, the CDC spokesperson said in an email to CNN.

Cleanup continues

The EPA continues real-time air monitoring in East Palestine using a specially equipped bus that samples and tests the air. To date, the agency reports that the cleanup has removed an estimated 11,961 tons of contaminated soil and 9.2 million gallons of liquid wastewater.

It has also tested the indoor air of 624 area homes and sampled the soil at 115 properties in the area.

The agency said this week that early results of its dioxin testing have not shown any levels above expected background levels, although it didn't release any of the test results, which are still going through quality checks.

Testing conducted by the Ohio EPA shows that two creeks that run through East Palestine are still testing positive for chemicals released by the spill. The state is using aerators to increase oxygen in the water to speed the breakdown of those chemicals.

The testing shows that the chemical levels in the streams are dropping over time, but some chemicals spilled from the train are still being detected almost two months after the derailment. On a recent visit to the area, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said children and adults should not go near the creeks.

"As a father, I would not advise anybody -- adult or child -- play in the creeks or stream. What we've said is the drinking water has been tested" and found to be safe, Regan said at a news conference in East Palestine on March 1.

At a hearing this month, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw was asked whether he would live in East Palestine, given what he knows about the derailment.

"Yes, sir," Shaw responded in testimony before the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee on March 9. "I believe that the air is safe. I believe that the water is safe. There are hundreds of tests, there are millions of data points, and they all point to the same thing."

To residents, the official assurances that everything is fine sound hollow.

"They're all scientists. They're sitting up here telling us nothing's wrong. I want you to tell me why everybody in my community is getting sick," resident Jami Cozza told a panel of federal and state experts at a contentious town hall in East Palestine on March 2.

State and federal government officials have also suggested that the physical complaints some continue to experience are being driven by fear and anxiety, rather than some kind of chemical exposure.

"While all the tests of the air and the soil and the water have thus far shown repeatedly that things are safe, fear -- fear remains," Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said in testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on March 23.

DeWine also announced this month that the temporary health assessment clinic, which has been operating out of a local church, will expand its services and become permanent through a partnership with East Liverpool City Hospital, a nonprofit health center.

The clinic will offer primary care, including blood and urine testing and physical exams. Krista McFadden, CEO of East Liverpool City Hospital, told CNN that it will treat anyone who needs care, regardless of their ability to pay.

The clinic is scheduled to open April 10.

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