The investigators’ symptoms included sore throats, headaches, coughing and nausea – consistent with what some residents experienced after the February 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 US 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.
Cnn asked the Epa where the contractors were working and what they were doing when they experienced these symptoms, but the EPA did not respond by deadline. 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.
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.