Scientists to study effects of train spill

More than five years after a train wreck sent a cloud of deadly chlorine gas through Graniteville, residents of the small South Carolina town believe their health still suffers.

A team of researchers from universities in Georgia and South Carolina suspects the residents are right and will use a $2.9 million federal grant to find out for sure if breathing chlorine gas caused permanent lung damage.

The scientists involved in the study include an epidemiologist from the University of Georgia.

Preliminary studies showed the lungs of people exposed to the gas were aging about four times faster than normal in the year after the disaster, said Eric Svendsen, the University of South Carolina epidemiologist who will head the study.

In the second year after the wreck, residents’ lungs were aging about twice the normal rate, Svendsen said.

Nine people died, and more than 200 were treated for chlorine exposure after a Norfolk Southern train carrying chlorine gas collided with a parked train on Jan. 6, 2005.

A train crew left a track switch in the wrong position, investigators concluded.

Hundreds more breathed the toxic gas, which combines with the water in human mucous membranes to form hydrochloric acid, but many did not seek immediate medical help. State authorities evacuated more than 5,000 people after more than 40 cars derailed, including the tanker full of chlorine gas, which ruptured.

“We don’t know the total number of people exposed,” Svendsen said, though 1,400 people have told state officials they breathed the gas.

“That’s just the people we know about,” he said.

Residents hope the study will help persuade state or federal officials to provide medical resources and economic development for the community, which was hit with another kind of disaster 16 months after the derailment when an Avondale Mills textile plant closed, throwing hundreds out of work.

“I’ve got two brothers, and they’re always going to have problems from the lung injuries,” said Louisiana Sanders, a Graniteville native who organized a community group that is trying to get a health clinic established in the town.

Her two brothers knew right away their lungs were damaged, she said. One was hospitalized. But many in the community went without medical attention, Sanders said.

“They didn’t go to hospitals or doctors,” she said.

“The purpose is to support the community through the process, and at the same time get the best knowledge about the impact of such events,” said John Vena, a UGA faculty member involved in the Graniteville study.

“There’s really no information on the long-term effects on folks exposed to chlorine,” said Vena, head of the epidemiology and biostatistics department in the College of Public Health. “We’re looking for long-term consequences.”

Scientists plan to measure lung function in 600 former mill workers over the next five years, Svendsen said. Some got heavy exposures to the chlorine; others got none.

The scientists will compare their lung tests with records of testing conducted by Avondale Mills on the workers’ lungs in the years before the chlorine spill, he said.

The textile company measured workers’ lung function because they were exposed in their mill work to cotton dust, which can cause respiratory problems, he said.

But the lung testing won’t be limited to the former mill workers.

The National Institutes of Health grant also will pay for lung function testing for community residents who would like the medical assessment done on themselves, up to 500 tests a year, Svendsen said.

– Lee Shearer[email protected]
Athens Banner Herald

Posted October 26, 2010.