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Government to step up efforts to monitor health of East Palestine residents, first responders

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk and Southern train on Feb. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(CNN) — Almost two months after a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in the town of East Palestine, Ohio, the state Department of Health is preparing to offer blood and urine testing and physical exams to first responders who rushed to fight the blaze.

The testing is set to start within the next two weeks and will be the first step in a long-term effort to monitor the health of responders to the accident, according to an email obtained by CNN.

This move closely follows an announcement that a health assessment clinic for East Palestine residents that has been operating out of a local church will become permanent and expand its services.

Roughly 300 firefighters from 50 departments — many of whom were volunteers — responded to the derailment and fire, which happened the night of February 3 and continued to burn for several days.

Many of the firefighters had their gear ruined by the heat and chemicals. Some wore breathing apparatus to protect themselves from the fumes and smoke, but others didn’t have or didn’t know that they needed self-contained breathing apparatus to protect their lungs and airways, according to firefighters who were at the scene and spoke with CNN.

The email about health testing, which was sent to area fire chiefs Sunday, says the long-term monitoring plans for the first responders are still being developed, but a first step will be the physicals, which will include “blood work, urinalysis, and an exam.” It does not describe what the tests will look for or their purpose.

The Ohio Department of Public Health said in a statement Monday that it “has been working with the East Palestine fire chief to make sure responders’ unique needs are addressed.

“In early March, ODH began soliciting first responders to voluntarily fill out a specialized After Chemical Exposure (ACE) survey, and more than 200 have filled those out so far. This collects information on type of exposure and PPE worn as well as any health impacts responders may be experiencing,” the statement says. “The next step in our comprehensive plan of ongoing monitoring of first responders involves creating a clinical service within the next several weeks. This service is in the planning stages and many details still have not been determined, but it would include voluntary laboratory testing.”

In addition to the testing through the health department, firefighters who responded to the derailment will be followed by the Firefighter Cancer Cohort Study, Candice McDonald, deputy chief executive of the National Volunteer Fire Council, said Monday.

The study, which is funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, aims to follow 10,000 firefighters for 30 years to learn more about how their exposures contribute to cancer risks.

Cancer caused by chemicals in smoke is the leading cause of death for firefighters, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters.

First responders to the Ohio derailment were among the most heavily exposed to a cocktail of chemicals that spilled into the ground and nearby creeks.

David Comstock, chief of the Western Reserve Joint Fire District, says there are still a lot of unknowns about the nature of the chemical hazards that the firefighters were exposed to that night.

“One of the things that I’ve raised is, what’s in tank car A? And what’s in tank car B? But what happens when they mix and burn? Now, what do I have?” he said.

Comstock says that three firefighters from his station responded to the derailment and were 50 to 100 feet from a burning railcar. He asked them what was in the derailed cars, “and my crews couldn’t answer me,” he said.

It was hard to get information about the chemicals on the scene, he said.

He arranged physical exams for the firefighters at his station within a week, but he wishes they had happened even faster. He spoke to some doctors who advised blood testing within 48 hours.

“Your blood, your body, processes many of the chemicals out of it within that time period, that they don’t become detectable at that point,” he said.

It’s unclear how much information testing will yield now, Comstock said, but he hopes the exams and tests from the Department of Health will offer a baseline so the first responders will know if their health changes over time.

East Palestine residents will also soon get expanded access to health services. The temporary health assessment clinic that opened in downtown in the wake of the train derailment will remain open permanently, Gov. Mike DeWine testified Wednesday before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

“We started back clinic shortly after this tragedy occurred. This morning … I met with medical leaders from the East Liverpool City Hospital. And we are announcing today that we’ll be making this clinic into a permanent clinic for the community,” DeWine said last week.

“This is going to be a full-service clinic that will provide comprehensive care and treatment. Anybody can walk in anyone can be treated. And this is a long-term commitment to the health of the people of East Palestine,” said DeWine, who offered his testimony remotely, from the library of East Palestine High School.

DeWine gave few details on the services that might be available to the clinic or who would ultimately pay for them.

Currently, residents can walk into the clinic to get information about their risk, answer questions as part of an ongoing health study, and meet with a physician to get a basic exam and advice on any necessary follow-up care.

DeWine suggested that these offerings might be expanded under a partnership with East Liverpool City Hospital. His comments were also an acknowledgment of ongoing health needs in the community.

East Palestine residents are “worried about their future they’re worried about where things are going to be in five or 10 or 15 years. It’s important that they be able to continue to get assessed,” he said.

DeWine said it would be particularly important for the health of the first responders to continue to have regular checkups.

“They all need to be assessed. That needs to be established — a baseline — and they need to be assured that in five years or 10 years, there’s still a place where they can go.”

DeWine said Norfolk Southern would be expected to pay for those things.

“We look to the railroad to establish that fund,” he said.