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‘We’re afraid to shower’: Fear and anxiety linger in Ohio town reeling from toxic train derailment

Despite assurances by government officials that the air and water are safe, East Palestine residents remain skeptical.

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Doug Brayshaw was sitting on his porch when a massive plume of black smoke rose over the site of the Norfolk Southern train derailment like a scene out of a horror movie. 

“It was like a storm, like a big storm was coming,” said Brayshaw, a truck driver who lives less than 3 miles from the site where Norfolk Southern chose to burn hazardous chemicals to avoid the risk of an explosion. 

Since then, Brayshaw, 63, has fretted over whether his well water is safe. Some 15 days passed before officials finally arrived at his home Tuesday to test it, but he is going to have to wait even longer before he gets any answers. 

He said he was told it could take up to 10 days for the results to come back.

“We’re afraid to shower,” said Brayshaw, who has been cooking with bottled water he picks up from an assistance center the rail company set up at a local church. “I won’t even give my dog drinking water out of my well right now because I’m worried.”

East Palestine residents have been on edge since the Feb. 3 derailment of a 150-car Norfolk Southern train. The company initiated the controlled burn of vinyl chloride from five rail cars on Feb. 6. 

More than two weeks later, many East Palestine residents said they remain gripped by fear and anxiety despite assurances by government officials that the air and drinking water are safe. 

A volunteer prepares to distribute cases of water to residents in East Palestine, Ohio
A volunteer prepares to distribute cases of water to residents in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 17.Michael Swensen / Getty Images

Mothers have turned to social media in a desperate attempt to crowdsource tips on how to safeguard their homes. Some have described wiping everything in their homes down with dish soap, throwing out food that was open and hunting online for the best air purifiers, even though they know such measures might be futile. 

“Mentally, I’m exhausted,” said Ashley Floor, 31, one of the women who have documented their struggles on a Facebook group for East Palestine residents. 

In some cases, assistance provided by Norfolk Southern has raised more questions for residents. The company says it has distributed more than 100 air purifiers to residents but, according to experts, common consumer air purifiers are ineffective against compounds like vinyl chloride. 

Jenna Catone, 31, lived in a hotel for 10 days until Norfolk Southern confirmed that her home’s air had been tested. 

When a local company announced it had “acquired the home cleanup contract from Norfolk Southern” for residents who lived within the evacuation zone, she jumped at the chance and signed up for what she thought was going to be a home cleanup. 

What she got was a “fogging.” She said a man from the cleaning company knocked on the door, didn’t take his shoes off and then proceeded to spray down her home with a disinfectant and odor neutralizer. 

“They didn’t even bring a rag in with them,” she said.

A meeting on Feb. 15 to answer questions about the cleanup from the derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train.
A meeting on Feb. 15 to answer questions about the cleanup from the derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train.Gene J. Puskar / AP

Norfolk Southern didn’t respond directly to questions about residents’ ongoing concerns. But the company noted that it launched a website Monday,, that provides regular updates to the community. 

“If there’s something that we haven’t addressed, we want to hear from residents so we can provide them with the up-to-date information,” a Norfolk Southern representative said. 

The EPA on Tuesday ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up any contaminated soil and water, and pay all the costs. The agency said the company must also reimburse it for the costs of cleaning homes and conducting weekly municipal water tests. 

“I’d like to see things going faster,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in an interview with NBC News. “And I’d like to see things more transparent and that’s why we’re taking this action.”

So far, the EPA and Norfolk Southern have tested air quality in 533 homes and sampled the municipal water supply and deemed them safe. Testing results for homes that rely on private well water has not come back yet, though 52 have been sampled so far.

Catone said her experience trying to get hotel and evacuation expenses reimbursed has only added to her already high stress levels. 

On one trip to the Norfolk Southern assistance center, she waited five hours. Another trip lasted four hours. 

“I went two times to get money back during that time and still need to go to get the rest of my expenses back, but the center is flooded with people just trying to get that $1,000,” Catone said, referring to the “inconvenience check” Norfolk Southern is offering to area residents. 

“I am sitting on about $1,500 in receipts I need refunds for,” she added. 

Ron Rafferty Jr. 60, wears a mask while pressure washing to clean the floor of a car wash in East Palestine, Ohio,
Ron Rafferty Jr., 60, wears a mask while pressure washing the floor of a car wash in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 17.Michael Swensen / Getty Images

High levels of anxiety can compound any adverse physical health effects, experts say.

Dr. Maureen Lichtveld, an epidemiologist, spent 18 years working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services responding to environmental impacts in the wake of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 

After Katrina, she and her colleagues studied how mold in homes affects asthma in children. 

“We found that yes, the spores of the mold exposure indoors had the potential to increase asthma attacks in those kids,” said Lichtveld, who is the dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health. “But what was right next to that was having lost a pet during the hurricane, and having moved schools more than twice in a year.” 

She said she thinks such measures as offering alternative accommodations for affected residents, regardless of whether or not their homes have been deemed safe, would go a long way in allaying their fears. 

“Perception is reality,” Lichtveld said. “Recognizing and respecting the community’s decision — or a person’s decision — not to go back, regardless how clean the room is, is the responsibility of us as scientists.”

Steve Montgomery, 51, a local farmer, is worried about how the contamination will affect his operation.

Steve Mongtomery.
Steve Mongtomery.Kenzi Abou-Sabe / NBC News

“Our sales are down today,” said Montgomery, who runs Lamppost Farm, an organic farm and educational facility in nearby Columbiana.

“Is that because everybody’s afraid? I don’t know.” 

Montgomery said he remains optimistic that his farm will survive the crisis, but he’s joining a lawsuit against the railroad company just in case. “Say we lose 25% of our customers, that’s a huge hit,” he said.

Floor and her husband have talked about moving away but feel too tied to the community. She’s now worried about a painful, itchy rash that has spread across her 12-year-old son’s body.

Ashley Floor and her son.
Ashley Floor and her son.Ashley Floor

“It’s hard for me to decide if it’s because of something in the air that’s bothering him, or the water when he gets a shower, or his clothes that’s being washed in this water, or if it’s something else,” she said.

Floor said she’s glad that officials have committed to testing the municipal water on a weekly basis, but she worries that the efforts will fade over time. 

“It’s going to take years for our water to be affected,” she said. “And by that time, I feel like everybody’s going to be gone, and nobody’s going to be testing it.”