Six years after a train accident leaked chlorine gas into the town of Graniteville, killing nine people, a $3 million study will start looking at the long-term effects of the spill on the health of the town’s residents.
Hundreds of Graniteville natives have complained of health problems since the disaster. An earlier lung screening by health officials found 18 percent of those screened showed signs of an obstructive lung disease– about twice the national average. The disease usually indicates asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema. It also found the lungs aged nearly four times faster than average.
The new study, known as GRACE (Graniteville Recovery And Chlorine Epidemiology study) will specifically examine millworkers at Avondale Mills to see how the chlorine may have affected their lungs in the long-term. It’s being led by University of South Carolina public health adjunct professor Erik Svendsen.
Svendson also worked as environmental epidemiologist at the state Department of Health and Environmental Control at the time of the accident. He has since spent a lot of time in Graniteville, including work with the lung screenings that found the original problems.
We’re looking to see if we can help answer some of those questions that are posed to us by the community. At the same time, it’d be able to answer some very important scientific questions, as well.
The study is still recruiting employees at the Avondale Mill. Svendsen said they chose the millworkers because the company kept health records before the accident. The study will randomly select 670 workers from the pool and measure how their lungs age in the coming years.
The study of the millworkers is the first large-scale research of its kind into the effects of chlorine. Svendsen said there has never been such a large study on so many people for an extended period of time.
This is the largest population exposed to a chlorine gas event like this in U.S. history. So, really, it’s an unprecedented event. There’s a lot of uncertainty as to how people might be responding.
He says there was research done on soldiers who were “gassed” with chlorine in World War I, but those soldiers had to deal with several different chemicals, so the effects were not the same.
Researchers are still looking for volunteers in the study. If you are a resident of the area who may have been affected, you can visit the group’s website to learn how to sign up. Researchers are also continuing to do screenings for residents who are not employed by the mill, but those people will not participate in the GRACE study.
Svendsen’s work will be featured on the new documentary “Graniteville: Past, Present, and Future.” The film will debut at Augusta’s Imperial Theater on Saturday. It covers the town’s unique history– it was the site of the South’s first large-scale cotton mill– as well as its challenging future.