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Pitt researchers will travel to East Palestine to study the health effects of chemical exposures

A bronze Panther statue

The University of Pittsburgh has received a pair of two-year grants from the National Institutes of Health to support studies on the health effects of environmental contamination resulting from the train derailment that spilled hazardous materials into the local communities in East Palestine, Ohio, in February 2023.

The grants, totaling nearly $1 million, were awarded through a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences program known as Time Sensitive Research Opportunities in Environmental Health, which supports research to characterize initial environmental exposures and collect biospecimens and other data — in this case, from residents potentially impacted by the train derailment. 

“After an immediate threat of a disaster is neutralized, there is still much work to be done to meet the public health needs of the community,” said Maureen Lichtveld, dean of Pitt’s School of Public Health. “We have built a transdisciplinary team of experts in environmental health, disaster preparedness, clinical toxicology and psychology to this end, and we are committed to embedding a community-engaged approach in our work.”

Juliane Beier, an assistant professor at the School of Medicine and the School of Public Health, and Lichtveld are principal investigators of the first grant, titled “East Palestine Community-Engaged Environmental Exposure, Health Data, and Biospecimen Bank.” In response to vinyl chloride and other chemicals leaking into the environment and, potentially, into area homes, Pitt researchers will partner with community advisors and area citizen-scientists to collect air and water samples from inside about 100 residences in areas surrounding the derailment site. They will also collaborate in collecting biospecimens as well as data on the health outcomes of 300 volunteer participants.

Investigators will evaluate these biospecimens to detect early signs of liver dysfunction, said Lichtveld, explaining that vinyl chloride is a known liver carcinogen.

Peng Gao, Pitt Public Health and Swanson School of Engineering assistant professor, is principal investigator of the second research grant, titled “Profiling the Post-Accident Exposome in East Palestine.” This team will collect soil, water and sediment samples to characterize the extent of the chemical contamination and the ongoing environmental impact on the region.

"We will be working alongside residents and community partners of East Palestine, using scientifically rigorous, community-engaged strategies to collect environmental samples, and will meet regularly with community leaders to discuss our findings and any concerns that may arise,” said Gao. 

The other investigators on the award are James P. Fabisiak, Firoz Abdoel Wahid, Jeanine M. Buchanich, Carla Ng, Laura J. Dietz and Meng Wang, all of Pitt, as well as Li Li at the University of Nevada, Reno.