Feb 14, 2023 - Podcasts

Air quality risks after the Ohio derailment

On Feb. 3, a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, prompting an evacuation of local residents and questions about the safety of the area's water and air. Now some experts are worried residents don't have accurate information on health and safety risks.

  • Plus, the GOP's funding fight over China.
  • And, why underwear tariffs are sexist.

Guests: Axios' Jael Holzman and Emily Peck; Johns Hopkins University's Pete DeCarlo.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Naomi Shavin and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Tuesday, February 14th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today: the GOP’s funding fight over China. Plus: why underwear tariffs…are sexist! But first, air quality concerns linger 11 days after an Ohio train derailment. That’s today’s One Big Thing.

Air quality risks after the Ohio derailment

NIALA: On February 3rd, a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Carcinogenic chemicals were on the Norfolk Southern Freight train, prompting an evacuation of hundreds of local residents and questions about the safety of the area's water and air.

The EPA said over the weekend that it hadn't detected any levels of concern and people have returned. But some experts on environmental health are worried that the methods being used to monitor the area aren't sophisticated enough to give residents accurate information on health and safety risks.

Pete DeCarlo is an associate professor of Environmental health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University and joins us to discuss the airborne risks that could face the East Palestine area.

Can you start by summing up what toxins were released in this derailment and how dangerous they could be to people?

PETE DECARLO: The main chemical that was released that was contained within those tank cars is vinyl chloride, which we know to be toxic to humans, animals, and just generally bad for the environment.

There was also a need to set some of those on fire to kind of burn off some of the chemicals that weren't able to be released, leading to a very large black cloud of smoke, which got trapped by the atmosphere, and kind of contained it from going higher in the air.

So both the initial release of the chemical and the products of that large fire, led to very large concentrations of toxic chemicals downwind of that accident.

NIALA: So how does the EPA or other government agencies monitor risk in a situation like this?

PETE: Well, they initially look for high levels of air contaminants that they know to be toxic, and they use the tools that are available. In this case, they used handheld sensors that were not designed to measure the chemicals of interest. They're measuring using something that measures organic chemicals that are in the air. And so it gave us an inaccurate picture of what was going on.

They also measured what's called whole air samples where they draw air into containers and then they take them back to the lab and make measurements. And those measurements were done at a time when the wind was blowing from East Palestine towards the accident site. And so it was unlikely that any chemicals released from the accident site would actually be measured. You always wanna make those types of measurements downwind of the accident.

And so the kind of analogy that you can use here is, you know, many people have, you know, stood around a campfire, and if you're standing on the upwind side of the campfire, you're not getting smoke in your face.

I don't think that any of this is malicious. I think we're, we're partially restricted in response based on what resources are available.

NIALA: So I have read reports of people complaining about nausea and headache. What are the actual human risks to inhaling carcinogenic chemicals, both short and long-term?

PETE: Long-term if the carcinogenic is going to be a cancer risk. And then there's also acute risks with respiratory. The symptoms that people are describing are all consistent with these toxic chemicals being inhaled at high concentrations.

NIALA: What are you watching for next here to ensure that there isn't environmental damage or health damage?

PETE: I think at the end of the day, there is environmental and health damage. The question is, can we adequately assess the situation now and make sure people are safe enough if they're going back to their homes? Things like water and soil are things that also need to be addressed and thought through.

I haven't seen any additional monitoring at the site or downwind of the site. until that happens, I think I would still be wary if I were a resident of going home.

NIALA: Pete DeCarlo was an associate professor of Environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Pete, thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

PETE: Thank you for having me.

NIALA: In a moment: a new push to ban federal funding to companies with close China relationships.


House Republicans push for hard line with China

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. A group of conservative advocates is pushing House Republicans to draw a hard line with China. No federal funding for companies with close Chinese relationships. This can have big repercussions for entire US industries and climate efforts as well. Axios Pro Energy policy reporter, Jael Holtzman, has an exclusive story.

Welcome to the podcast, Jael!

JAEL HOLZMAN: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.

NIALA: Who's calling for this? And why?

JAEL: So the Heritage Foundation recently published a commentary calling for Congress to pass legislation blocking federal investments to companies that have significant entanglements in China. At the moment, the global economic order kind of revolves around China's manufacturing and mining industries.

A ban such as this would be a targeted blow at the Biden administration's efforts to use federal investments to quickly transition the United States away from fossil fuels.

Electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels. All of these things are made with materials, many of which, made primarily in China. And so putting a cudgel between the United States and China when it comes to stimulus, that could make things harder on net zero progress. It could make it more difficult to pay for a faster transition away from fossil fuels.

NIALA: Where does this fit then with the broader GOP stance on China?

JAEL: Right now Republicans see energy security and tackling Russia, China — the role they play in the global economic order — they see that as a priority above a rapid decarbonization, a rapid switch away from fossil fuels in the United States. The unfortunate truth to climate advocates is that if the United States swiftly switched away from fossil fuel, without the kind of industrial base that China has, we could be more reliant on other countries for the goods that we use to power our lives every day.

And so the Republican energy security agenda is one that highlights this risk to national security vis-a-vis the switch away from fossil fuels.

NIALA: Jael, it's important to note that we're talking about strategy and an agenda. What is the likelihood that we could see this happen?

JAEL: So the likelihood of the United States curtailing Chinese production, generally speaking, uh, entering for the United States is high. It happens today. The US recently passed a forced labor law that clamped down on goods from China potentially linked to, uh, forced labor in the Xinjiang region of China. What are the odds of Congress passing a bill banning federal dollars to companies that do business with China? Not high at the moment.

However, the Republican party is moving faster and faster in this direction. I interviewed a freshman lawmaker, a rising right wing media darling Anna Paulina Luna, who told me that if she could, she would block China.

She would ask American companies to completely remove all of their entanglements with, with China entirely. And veteran Republicans are also more open to this. So it may wind up being that Democrats are the ones to watch next on scrutinizing the business deals American companies have with China.

NIALA: Jael Holzman is co-author of the new Axios Pro Energy Policy Newsletter. Thanks, Jael.

JAEL: Thank you.

A pink tax on underwear

NIALA: It's the worst Valentine's Day surprise ever, writes trade analyst Ed Gresser of the progressive policy institute, in a report revealing that underwear tariffs…are apparently sexist. Axios market correspondent Emily Peck explains.

EMILY PECK: So the average US tariff rate on women's underwear is 15%, compared to 11.5% for men's underwear per Ed'S analysis last week. Tariffs are the taxes the federal government tax on imported goods, and sure, sometimes administrations kind of monkey around with them to help US manufacturers. Steel tariffs were often in the news recently, for example. But it doesn't look like these underpants tariffs have anything to do with boosting demand for domestic panty producers.

In fact, 98% of clothing in the US is imported. This just appears to be a literal pink tax. That usually refers to the practice of companies marking up products aimed at women — women's deodorant, women's pens. I'm serious. But in this case, it's looking like the panty gender gap is not intentionally discriminatory.

It's more like, this is something that started happening a really long time ago, maybe when US manufacturers were actually threatened by foreign underpants competition. And women's underpants maybe were more labor intensive or something like that. But the bottom line and, the analyst writes this in his report, “Seriously, boo. Do better.”

Anyway, happy Valentine's Day, everyone.

NIALA: Thanks Emily – that’s Axios’ Emily Peck.

And that’s all we’ve got for you today! I’m Niala Boodhoo. I hope you get to celebrate the people you love today… Thanks for listening. Stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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