Posts misuse Ohio River map to distort contamination area
CLAIM: Everyone living in the Ohio River basin, as shown in the yellow area of a map, should be concerned about the safety of their drinking water after the derailment of a train in East Palestine, Ohio, contaminated the river.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The map shows the region of land whose surface water drains into the Ohio River, not the region that gets its drinking water from the river. Many counties in the map get their drinking water from other sources, experts said. Contaminants including butyl acrylate have been detected in the Ohio River, but the amounts so far don’t pose a risk for cities that rely on the river for its drinking water, according to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and outside experts.
THE FACTS: A Feb. 3 train derailment in Ohio, and the decision to intentionally release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five of its cars to avoid an uncontrolled explosion, have sparked worries in local residents over whether their air and drinking water are safe.
They’ve also generated a number of misleading and hyperbolic online claims about the degree to which the Ohio River and its surrounding states are affected.
Social media posts with tens of thousands of shares this week used a map of the Ohio River drainage basin, which touches parts of 14 states, to falsely claim that the entire region needed to be concerned about contaminants that had been detected in the river after the derailment.
One widely shared post claimed the contamination of the river was “extremely” concerning “to anyone living in or near the yellow area,” referring to the Ohio River basin on the map.
Other posts were less specific, sharing the news of the river’s contamination with the statistic that more than 30% of the U.S. population lives in the Ohio River basin.
Ohio officials in a news conference Tuesday did urge people in the East Palestine community to drink bottled water, especially if they use a private water source, until their water source can be tested.
However, officials said, areas in Central Ohio were unlikely to be impacted. And water quality experts say the idea that the entire Ohio River basin needs to worry about its drinking water is wrong.
The concentration of butyl acrylate, the only contaminant of concern that has been detected in the Ohio River, is much lower than the threshold considered hazardous, according to Patrick Ray, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Cincinnati.
That concentration will continue to decrease as it moves downstream, Ray said, as a result of evaporation, dilution in a large body of water, and a little bit of decomposing. It’s likely to be nearly undetectable when it reaches Cincinnati in several days, he added.
The Ohio EPA agreed that the contaminant amounts found so far don’t pose a risk for cities that rely on the river for its drinking water.
What’s more, the use of a map of the entire Ohio River basin to suggest all areas are affected is misleading, according to Ray and Paul Ziemkiewicz, the director of the West Virginia University Water Research Institute.
“Indeed, last time I checked water still flows downhill,” Ziemkiewicz said. “So, only water supplies downstream and within the Ohio River’s pool elevations would be potentially affected.”
The Ohio River valley is the lowest point of the region pictured in the map, Ray explained. As a result, areas whose water flows downhill into the river, such as Kentucky, wouldn’t be affected by its contamination.
Many areas pictured in the map also get their water from sources besides the Ohio River, he said.
“This map is showing an extremely large region that includes many, many counties that have nothing to do with the Ohio River at all,” Ray said. “We would say it’s hydrologically distinct.”
The map’s creator, Karl Musser, confirmed to The Associated Press in an email that it showed the Ohio River drainage basin, not areas that get their drinking water from the river.
Similarly, many internet users this week falsely claimed that because the Ohio River ultimately drains into the Mississippi River, thousands of farms that rely on the Mississippi River for water risk contamination.
But Ray said the Ohio River is nearly 1,000 miles long, and there’s no chance the contaminants that have been detected in it would cause harm to regions along the Mississippi.
Even as the state EPA says cities that rely on Ohio River drinking water are not at risk, some water companies have shut off their intakes or increased treatment processes as a precaution, the AP has reported.
This story has been updated to add new guidance from Ohio officials in a news conference Tuesday.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.