In the predawn dark in Graniteville 10 years ago, as tons of liquid chlorine seeped out of a wrecked tanker car and spread across the ground, nine people would die. Others bear lingering scars that likely still affect their health.
Ten years after the Jan., 6, 2005, train derailment, the effect on the lungs and mental health of the community is still being assessed.
But there was clearly an impact: one study found that between 2005 and 2008, the number of people from the area who were hospitalized for lung problems increased 2.5 times, said Dr. Erik Svendsen, a principal investigator of the Graniteville Recovery and Chlorine Epidemiology (GRACE) Study. The number who were hospitalized for mental health problems quadrupled, he said.
“That’s an underestimate because people don’t seek mental health care until it’s really, really bad,” Svendsen said.
Even looking at hospitalization data through 2013, “those increases and trends are still going on, even up to the more recent time,” he said.
Dr. James Abraham, the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, said he sees it even now.
“A lot of them have upper respiratory problems that some people have to deal with now,” he said. “One of the things we’re seeing is in some of the younger children there are problems with the upper respiratory (system) that they had not experienced before.”
It likely has to do with chlorine.
“Chlorine was used as the first weapon of mass destruction in modern warfare for a reason,” Svendsen said. “Back in 1914, Germany realized that it is very efficient at killing people. It’s dense. You release it from tanks and it will stay low to the ground and then go down into the trenches and kill people.”
In Graniteville, clouds of chlorine gas swept across the nearby mill and surrounding houses in much the way it would have affected those soldiers in the trenches in World War I.
“You’re seeing your clothes start to bleach before your eyes,” Svendsen said. “Your eyes are burning, you can’t see because the atmosphere around you is foggy. You don’t know where to go, where is safe, where is not safe.”
In a study of about 200 people affected by the spill less than a year later, almost 37 percent had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and those with evidence of lung injury were more likely to have it.
Because the mill was so heavily affected, it set up a unique opportunity to study the impact of the chlorine spill on the health of those workers, Svendsen said. The researchers looked at lung health testing done before the accident and now have followed the workers and done testing periodically since then.
“We can look at the year-to-year changes in their lung health before the accident versus the year-to-year lung health changes after the accident and chlorine exposure and be able to contrast those before and after changes,” Svendsen said. “That’s never been done before in any population in any of the scientific studies done to date.”
What they are finding is evidence of what he calls “restrictive” lung function in some of those exposed, “an indicator of scarring or damage to lung tissue that could be permanent and difficult to treat. It’s an emphysema-like problem.”
The goal is to continue following those workers to see whether it gets better or worse over coming years.
Abraham said his church and others are working with the GRACE Study Center to make sure that people who were affected are getting the resources they need.
“Those kinds of things are what we are trying to make sure that the community at large gets healed from,” he said. “We know some problems are emotional. We also acknowledge that there are some physical health problems. We want to make sure that at the end of the day that all of the things that were shaken and knocked out of place, so to speak, because of that train derailment, we want to make sure those things are addressed.”