N.J. study details health problems reported after Paulsboro chemical leak

     A crane lifts up a car at the derailment site in Paulsboro, N.J. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

    A crane lifts up a car at the derailment site in Paulsboro, N.J. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

    Coughing, headache and upper respiratory trouble, those are just a few of the health problems that Paulsboro, N.J., residents say they suffered in the days following a train derailment and chemical spill in 2012.

    A Conrail freight train ran off the tracks while crossing a bridge in Paulsboro in November 2012. During the incident, a tank car was pierced and released vinyl chloride, a colorless gas, into the air.

    About a month after the incident, the state surveyed Paulsboro residents about their health. The results were posted this month.

    Of those borough residents who filled out the mailed survey, 66 percent reported new or worsening health problems in the week after the train accident.

    The state survey is a good first step, said attorney Mark Cuker whose law office represents about 1,000 area residents who are suing Conrail. But he still has many unanswered questions.

    “What it does show is about half of people in town had significant health problems, mainly respiratory problems,” Cuker said.

    Most of his clients have recovered, Cuker said, but some residents including first responders report having ‘lingering” problems a year and a half after the accident.

    “A lot of people had pre-existing asthma, pre-existing chronic respiratory pulmonary disease, those people tended to get longer-term effects from this,” Cuker said.

    Cuker said high levels of vinyl chloride have been linked to liver damage. He wants Conrail to pay for ongoing cancer screening for his clients.

    Jill Swindel Filiaggi, who lives about half a half a mile from the chemical spill, said her husband, Stephen, a bridge painter, is consulting with medical specialists about his health.

    “My husband still is monitored for his breathing,” Filiaggi said. “He has to wear respirator breathing apparatus when he paints. He is unable to catch his breath whereas before he never had a problem.”

    Federal investigation into derailment continues

    “While we recognize that people have questions about these issues, due to the fact that this report is part of an open and ongoing investigation from the [National Transportation Safety Board] into the cause of the incident, we unfortunately can’t comment,” said Conrail spokesman Michael Hotra.

    Conrail’s information website offers residents information on settled cases or an opportunity to make an appointment at the rail company’s public assistance center.

    Describing Paulsboro is an economically depressed area, Swindel Filiaggi said she knows community members who settled with Conrail for $500.

    “They signed away their rights for life, no matter what disease they get in the future they cannot go back and make a claim,” Cuker said.

    “One thing Mark pointed out to me is they also signed away the rights of their children,” Swindel Filiaggi said. “It’s really disgusting.”

    The New Jersey Health Department declined an interview request for more information on its advice and guidance to local residents.

    By email, department spokeswoman Donna Leusner said officials are still working on final results of the survey. She said New Jersey has an information page that includes some of the immediate health effects of vinyl chloride exposure.

    They include dizziness, nausea and tingling in the arms and legs.

    The state conducted a strong sample of Paulsboro’s nearly 6,000 residents, said Dena Mottola Jaborska, director of advocacy for New Jersey Citizen Action..

    “But, there are many people in the county who may have suffered health problems that may not have been captured by the report,” Jaborska said. “I think it would be important for anyone who has experienced health problems to contact the state department of health and let them know what’s going on.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.