It’s been seven years since a poisonous cloud spread across tiny Graniteville after a deadly train wreck rocked the gritty textile community.
And since that tragic morning in January 2005, a group of researchers has been tracking the lingering effects of chlorine on the public health.
Now, epidemiologist Erik Svendsen and his cohorts are intensifying their work. They opened a research laboratory in Graniteville earlier this summer and are systematically checking ex-mill workers to see how badly chlorine damaged the former employees’ lungs.
Svendsen, a Tulane University professor and lead researcher on the project, said Monday he expects the study will find people with long-lasting lung damage from breathing high levels of chlorine. The question is how many will show signs of scarred, prematurely aging lungs. His study should be completed in three years.
“I think we have sufficient scientific evidence from previous studies that show there is a likelihood some people will still have some persistent lung injury,’’ Svendsen said after speaking at an international conference of epidemiologists in Columbia. “We’re not sure how many. Some people will be fine. Some people will be sick. We don’t know the full scope of that until we finish.”
The Graniteville train wreck left an indelible mark on the Aiken County town and the state of South Carolina. Chlorine poured from a rail car when a speeding Norfolk Southern cargo train smashed into a parked locomotive during the early morning hours of Jan. 6, 2005. Nine people died and hundreds of others were injured.
At the time, the wreck was considered the nation’s worst railroad crash and chemical spill in two decades. It was so devastating that Avondale Mills, the town’s main employer and site of the wreck, eventually closed. The Norfolk Southern railroad company paid out millions of dollars to compensate victims as a result of the accident.
Soon after the wreck, Svendsen, formerly with the University of South Carolina, began looking at initial health screening results of Graniteville residents. He found that 18 percent of the people who were screened showed signs off obstructive lung disease months after the disaster. That was about twice the national average – which led to more questions about the spill’s impacts on health.
Since then, Svendsen has helped obtain more than $3 million in federal grants to fund a longer-term health study. Researchers from USC, the University of Georgia, the Medical University of South Carolina, the University of Maryland and the Medical College of Georgia are among those collaborating with Svendsen. A local citizens’ group also is helping out.
Medical technicians are now available to screen ex-mill workers in Graniteville at a building in the center of the unincorporated community of several thousand people. Doctors are available for consultation. The study is concentrating on former mill workers because Avondale kept records on the health of their lungs while the mill operated. Researchers will be able to compare the historic data to what they find in the next three years.
People who participate in the study come in annually for a battery of free tests that take several hours to complete.
Svendsen’s visit to Columbia was part of a prestigious four-day conference that started Monday at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. USC’s Arnold School of Public Health hosted the conference of about 800 epidemiologists and researchers from around the world. Epidemiologists study the link between the environment and human health.
Many scientists at the conference are the same people whose studies influence whether national environmental agencies enact tougher regulations to better protect the air, land and water, said Jim Burch, a USC professor of epidemiology who organized the event. The conference was held last year in Spain.
In addition to Svendsen, those making presentations Monday included Debra Silverman, whose cutting edge research on diesel exhaust helped persuade the International Agency for Research on Cancer to declare the diesel exhaust to be a known carcinogen. Silverman spoke about her recent research Monday afternoon. A Japanese researcher will speak today about the effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster on public health in Japan.
Scientists at Monday’s opening session noted that those who are less fortunate often suffer the most from environmental health threats. Many live in substandard housing or in areas where exposure to toxins are more prevalent, they said.
But U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-SC, the opening keynote speaker, said South Carolina is making strides to provide clean drinking water for people in rural areas, many of whom have drunk from contaminated wells. The formation of a water authority on the Santee Cooper lakes is helping to change that, Clyburn said.