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Tensions increase in East Palestine, Ohio, over train derailment, safety concerns

Experts available on media misinformation, mistrust and severity of leaked chemicals

As mistrust and anxiety in East Palestine, Ohio, grow following a train derailment that led to the leak of oil and toxic chemicals, a second train has derailed near Detroit.

But Northwestern University anthropologist Sera Young says it “almost doesn’t matter if it’s true or not” whether materials were leaked in the latest incident, because U.S. communities are so steeped in mistrust for their water — which Young says can be a proxy for mistrust in their government — that it will continue to dictate behaviors.

Sera Young, associate professor of anthropology in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and an expert on water security, and Erik C. Nisbet, the Owen L. Coon Endowed Professor of Policy Analysis and Communication and director of the Center for Communication & Public Policy in the School of Communication, can speak on growing mistrust around water security, the government and media.

Aaron I. Packman, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering, can speak about environmental implications of the spill, and chemistry professor Julia Kalow can speak in depth about the chemicals aboard the train.

Young can be reached by contacting 

Packman and Kalow can be reached by contacting Win Reynolds at

Nisbet can be reached by contacting Max Witynski at

“The amount of distrust expressed by the East Palestine community impacted by toxic chemicals released in the train derailment is a classic case of bad risk communication by environmental and health government agencies and the railroad company,” says Erik Nisbet. “A lack of procedural transparency and proactive communication, combined with conflicting advisories on the risk of water contamination, has created widespread doubt, uncertainty and distrust. 

“Adding to the mix is that we live in an age of online misinformation paired with skepticism of governmental and expert authority. We are witnessing how these factors exacerbate poorly executed communication strategies that inflame anxiety within the community rather than dampening it.”

“Trust in water is based on what people know, have heard and have experienced,” Sera Young says. “People’s experiences with water matter because this kind of thing repeats itself, as in Flint and elsewhere. People can trust water that’s unsafe and drink it — one thing can be true while the other is false.

“Mistrust in water is growing. Julius Lucks and I conducted the first study of trust in water globally across 140 countries, and we found that 20% of Americans anticipate being harmed by their water in the next two years. And it almost doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, because their beliefs have changed.

“The way to rebuild trust in East Palestine is by democratizing information and conducting water quality tests (ideally, people would be able to test water themselves rather than taking information from on high) could build trust or well-founded mistrust.”

Lucks is a professor of chemical and biological engineering and associate chair of chemical and biological engineering. He can be reached by contacting Win Reynolds.

“Risks from this type of contaminant spill are very well recognized,” says Aaron Packman. “Prediction of fate and effects of contaminants from spills is an old problem, and there are well developed methods to solving it. Making the measurements to confirm exactly where contaminants have gone and where they accumulate in the environment remains a challenge.

“Vinyl chloride is bad stuff. It is very persistent in the environment and is a known carcinogen. It also volatilizes (evaporates) and causes respiratory problems if the gas is inhaled.  

“There are two other major problems. First, the train contained oil and gas products that don't have an exact composition stated. These can contain a variety of organic contaminants that could be very problematic in both air and water. Second, the fire certainly produced a wide range of combustion products from the mixture of organic materials and chemical products on the train.”

“Given that one of the more concerning chemicals released is vinyl chloride, I am surprised that combustion is being used, but not sure what a better solution would look like,” Julia Kalow says. “Vinyl chloride is the precursor to PVC, a common plastic, and PVC isn't generally combusted because that releases hydrochloric acid (HCl) and other harmful compounds like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). In labs like mine, we are required to separate our waste that contains chlorinated molecules, because normal organic waste (including solvents like propylene glycol, which were also released in the spill) is incinerated for disposal, and incineration isn't considered safe for halogenated waste.”