EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — With East Palestine residents fearful of harmful long-term health effects following derailment of a train carrying hazardous chemicals, a local church is working to bring some relief by raising funds to provide air purifiers.
The First Church of Christ in East Palestine has launched the fundraising campaign HelpEastPalestineOhio.org to raise money to buy medical-grade purifiers, which can treat air and surfaces up to 2,600 square feet, said First Church Minister Robert Helbeck.
“Young mothers are scared to death about their kids,” Helbeck said. “This disaster has upended our community. Residents are leaving, businesses are suffering, and parents with young children are anxious about their health.”
In early February, a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed resulting in an explosion and fire that released a large, black plume of toxic smoke that drifted across East Palestine and surrounding communities in the Ohio Valley and Pennsylvania.
According to Helbeck, who leads the area’s largest church, some families are leaving the area permanently because of health concerns.
For every purifier the church buys, Germ Solutions will provide a second unit free, he said. The purifiers, Energy Star certified Beyond Guardian Air, run about $2,000 each.
So far, the church has distributed about 500 purifiers to area families.
“We'd like to get everybody in East Palestine one if we could,” he said, adding that the toxic smoke moved through Darlington, Pa. as well as other nearby communities where residents might benefit from the purifiers.
Germ Solutions USA also donated 160 air purifiers to the local schools.
Many residents are still experiencing symptoms — respiratory illness, nosebleeds, rashes and eye infections, as well as anxiety over long-term exposure to toxins, Helbeck said.
“The air purifiers are just one of the things that we do,” Helbeck said. The church has other funds to manage various needs, including a disaster fund, and the Caring Hands Food Pantry.
Following the derailment, donations came in from around the country, enabling the church to distribute more than 20,000 cases of drinking water, Helbeck said, with other local groups also distributing water and supplies.
The air purifiers are hoped to add an additional level of protection for concerned residents.
“We like it, because it makes people feel safer,” Helbeck said. “I don't know if they're safer. I don't know if they need to be safer. You know, it depends on who you talk to. But they're apprehensive. Young mothers, especially. They think, ‘what's going to happen in the future to my kids?’”
Many residents grow gardens in Columbiana County’s rural communities and they say they now fear soil contamination, as well as contamination in their wells.
The laest testing results by Ohio Emergency Management Agency show no contamination in drinking water, crops or soil in the derailment area.
According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ latest report, nearly 44,000 wild animals died as a result of the derailment.
In May, Eco Integrated Technologies presented residents with the results of independent testing that showed dioxin levels near the derailment site measuring 27,000% and 164,000% above control samples, according to a local ABC news outlet.
Dioxins are highly toxic and linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, immune system damage and other health problems, according to the U.S. EPA.
In March, a team of doctors and epidemiologists with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry arrived in East Palestine to conduct a house-to-house survey of residents.
After the first day, seven team members exhibited symptoms similar to those residents were experiencing, according to KDKA CBS News Pittsburgh.
Rick Vickroy, regional director of Germ Solutions USA, likens the train derailment to Sept. 11.
“Consider what happened in lower Manhattan after September 11 — more people died of cancer from long term exposure to toxic chemicals than died in the attack.” he said. “These air purifiers will go a long way towards giving residents peace of mind that the air and surfaces in their homes and businesses are as contaminant-free as possible.”