The Public Health Response to the East Palestine Train Derailment

College of Public Health welcomes Health Commissioner Dr. Wesley Vins one year post-event

Feb. 3, 2023 – A date that forever changed lives of residents and businesses in East Palestine, Ohio. A Norfolk Southern freight train derailed and caught fire. Of the 38 cars that derailed, 11 contained toxic chemicals including vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen, butyl acrylate, and other chemicals. First responders, most of which were volunteer fire departments, were immediately called into action.   

On Feb. 7, 2024, Dr. Wesley Vins, DPA, REHS, health commissioner for the Columbiana County Health District, visited Kent State University’s College of Public Health to share with approximately 100 students, faculty and staff, the “East Palestine train derailment environmental public health response.” Dr. Vins has an environmental science background, doing his undergraduate work at Edinboro University, earning his master’s degree at Youngstown State University and his doctorate at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. 

“Unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, local public health was not front and center. Our office served as a tactical resource. We were a spoke in the wheel to address environmental concerns, mental health issues and health care,” Vins said. “We worked closely with our partners and our role changed throughout the process,” he added. 

CPH faculty welcome Dr. Wes Vins on Feb. 7, 2024 to discuss the public health response to the Feb. 3, 2023 East Palestine, Ohio train derailment. L to R Maggie Stedman-Smith, Melissa Zullo, Matt Stefanak, Wes Vins, Jeff Hallam, Eric Jefferis

East Palestine is a village of approximately 5,000 legacy residents. Many of the businesses and farms have been in families for generations. “No one could be fully prepared for a disaster of this magnitude,” Vins said. “With two hospitals in the area, our initial concern was a surge, like COVID. Fortunately, this did not happen,” he added. In terms of the public health response, the health district focused on providing accurate and transparent public information. They also developed and implemented residential well sampling, and set up a temporary health assessment clinic, which is now permanent, to monitor the consequences of the pollutants on the health of the population. 

“We learned from the COVID pandemic how important it is to build trust with both the media and community. Our goal was to provide timely and transparent communications and be consistent in our messaging. We stayed in our lane,” Vins said. “It was our first experience dealing with some aggressive media on both the local and national level.” 

Public meetings were held on a regular basis to inform the community. According to Vins, “They were large, intense, unpredictable, unscripted and included local residents and businesses, as well as activists, our partners and political figures. We were very fortunate to have immediate assistance from the State Director of Health, who attended to address the public and reduce any potential misunderstandings.”   

In terms of the environmental process, as residential water wells fall under the jurisdiction of the local health district, wells in the area were tested for potential contamination. The village well field was first tested on Feb. 10, thanks to a partnership with the Mahoning County Health District, the Ohio EPA, the Ohio Department of Health, Norfolk Southern, and the Summit Environmental Lab. According to Vins, “A plan was put in place to establish a call center to handle questions and concerns from residents and businesses. Two zones were created to sample all wells every 30-45 days. We were very fortunate to have such great support from other health departments.” 

Since the derailment, over one year ago, samples are now taken every 45-60 days. “Results are reviewed by the Ohio EPA and Ohio Department of Health and all sample results can be found on our website,” he added.  

It’s been a long year, but the Columbiana Health District can certainly be commended for a job well done. “In terms of what lessons learned, it is critical to complete staff training in advance. It’s also important to keep plans up to date and maintain relationships with partners. Communication must be transparent and timely. If you, don’t misinformation will beat you there,” Vins said. 

Public health event about East Palestine a year later

“I love my job. We change people’s lives every day. It’s not on the front page of the paper, but you can make a difference in lots of people’s lives. If you choose the right career, you don’t need to wait until retirement — you can help change the world now. This is a great example of that,” Vins said.  

According to Vins, academia, including Kent State’s College of Public Health, prepared professionals to arrive equipped to help, and universities also came into the response to actively participate in research about exposure, resiliency, environmental impact and more.  

Jeff Hallam, Ph.D., senior associate dean at the College of Public Health, is the Kent State University liaison to the Research Consortium for East Palestine, Ohio. The consortium has representatives from area universities and “aspires to write succinct but informative objective summaries of what the data suggest or indicate relative to contaminant types, toxicological profiles, locations, contamination levels in environmental matrices, and reported health information. Their goal is to serve as an independent group of academics to assist with communicating objective data-informed summaries and conclusions.” Kent State University has a group of faculty actively engaged in research in East Palestine. 

To learn more about the College of Public Health Environmental Health minor, click here 

POSTED: Tuesday, February 13, 2024 04:20 PM
Updated: Tuesday, February 13, 2024 04:47 PM
College of Public Health