Even before many media outlets began jumping on the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, a video from TikTok user Nick Drom went viral.
The video, which has since amassed more than seven million views and nearly 700,000 likes, started out by noting the derailment and subsequent chemical spillage at the time hadn’t “been getting a lot of coverage.”
As more media outlets picked up on the news, the public began to get inundated with a wide range of information — and misinformation — on the subject.
The aftermath of the derailment has left residents and non-residents in Ohio seeking answers about the immediate and long-term environmental health consequences of the chemical spills.
Similarly to how COVID-19 shed light on shortcomings in the federal government’s public health communications response, the derailment is exposing big gaps in public health messaging.
The disaster has also provided misinformation with an opening to run rampant according to Paul Sambanis, adjunct assistant professor in the division of environmental and occupational health sciences at University of Illinois Chicago’s School of Public Health.
“There’s risk and then there’s perceived risk,” Sambanis said. “What people are concerned about is something to be taken into consideration. That’s why having clear communications at the beginning of [such an event] changes the way that people are going to understand the risk and what the consequences are.”
Since the train derailed on February 3, an evacuation order was issued for a one-mile radius around the crash site due to risk of an explosion, and the Environmental Protection Agency began monitoring the air for contaminants of concern. Days later, Norfolk Southern began a controlled burn of the cars that contained vinyl chloride in order to prevent an explosion.
By February 15, that initial evacuation order was lifted and Ohio Governor Mike DeWineannounced that East Palestine’s municipal water supply was safe to drink, as deemed by the Ohio EPA, all while air monitoring and indoor air screenings continued.
On February 17, the Biden administration announced it would send a team of medical experts and toxicologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff to East Palestine to assist with public health testing, and Ohio launched a health clinic for residents who complain of symptoms potentially linked to the contaminants.
Still, even in the midst of official government reports noting the water is safe to drink and people are safe to stay in the area, there continues to be a considerable level of public mistrust in both the government and Norfolk Southern’s “everything is fine” beat.
Some locals in East Palestine, skeptical of the EPA’s testing, have even sought to do their own contaminant testing, as reported by The New York Times.
The perceived lack of transparency and communication from public agencies involved, as well as dwindling local news outlets and politically-driven anti-media sentiment, has exposed a dearth of information that’s left people hungry for clarity. It’s also resulted in many people turning to social media posts to fill the hole.
One TikTok video with 74,000 likes shows oily film on the surface of a creek, noting “the water in East Palestine, OH is DEADLY” and “The EPA is lying to the people of East Palestine.”
Another viral video with more than 1.4 million likes shows a cup of coffee sizzling after milk was poured in, arguing the water was contaminated.
Other posts included people self-reporting symptoms, smells and impacts on animals – while some content creators have grown to become de facto “experts” on the issue, without necessarily having any scientific training.
The level of misinformation around the issue has become a significant problem, journalist Molly Taft argued in Gizmodo.
“This type of overblown fear-mongering can be a real detriment to residents in the area who are simply looking for reliable information about what they should do and what precautions they should take but are instead getting barraged by talking heads looking to make a buck off a disaster,” Taft wrote.
The situation has also led to some officials pleading with the public to simply stop spreading content or fear-mongering, arguing the official government accounts are the most accurate.
[Embed NTSB Twitter thread addressing misinformation:
Still, amid all the noise, it appears much of the government attempts at messaging are being drowned out or mistrusted. The Ohio EPA and Ohio Department of Health (ODH) did not immediately respond to a request to comment.
Sambanis believes the government is probably “doing the best they can with their current technology and ability,” but added that such messes could be more preventable with better public health communication infrastructure in place.
“It speaks to a larger issue that is becoming more and more prevalent,” Sambanis explained. “We need to build up our infrastructure when it comes to this emergency communication — and upgrade the technologies for everyone, not just for the areas that can raise tax dollars.”
One gap that needs to be addressed is updating the technology for 911 services, Sambanis said. However, there’s also a need to implement two-way communication technology.
Instead of making emergency alerts one-way, “Could we have individuals be able to respond and ask questions?” Sambanis asked. The technology exists — Sambanis pointed to safety and community app gpost — but the government funding simply does not.
Public agencies could also get better at monitoring social media as viral posts with misinformation emerge, then immediately “identifying and dispelling myths and misconceptions,” Sambanis said.
Additionally, there’s a push in emergency communications to embrace methods like pictograms, which can transcend language barriers – and may resonate more with the public than dry written statements.
Most importantly, the follow-up communication — where people have a responsive person or agency they can go to with their questions and health concerns — is key to begin fostering some trust with the public.
“The key is to over-communicate, and to make it two-way,” Sambanis said. “If we don’t provide the technology or upgrade the infrastructure associated with it, it’s just going to get worse over time.”