The train derailment in East Palestine has hit home a little close to me because my elderly mother-in-law lives five miles west of the disaster site. However, it also made me remember something that happened in my childhood – the spread of rumors during an already very bad situation.
I grew up exactly 12 miles from Three Mile Island (TMI). I know this because I measured it out on a map (I was and still am kind of a map nerd). My little two-house street on the edge of the city of York, PA was uncomfortably close to America’s worst nuclear accident.
The nuclear accident happened in late March-early April 1979, about a month before my 12th birthday. Like my mother-in-law, my house was west of the accident site. Given the prevailing wind tends to be westerly, this is a good place to be when the risks are airborne.
There were tons of rumors flying around during the accident. The first one I recall was in school, right after the announcement was made the Friday of the accident that we would be dismissed early and would not have school Monday and Tuesday. A person died at TMI, was the school’s official rumor. Being told to go home and stay inside with the windows closed helped to fuel them.
Soon after, more rumors started flying. There were stillborn cows at nearby farms. People near the accident site claimed to have a metallic taste in their mouths. Claims of secret deaths being hidden from the public.
So, when a sort-of-similar event happened in East Palestine as far as a potential danger to residents, I anticipated rumors. And social media being what it is, the rumors soon began flying.
Friendly neighbourhood microbiologist entering the chat: this is not what you think it is. This is a bacterial biofilm on the surface of the water, likely due to all the dead fish in the creek. It won’t have a scent, & is not oil or gasoline. Happens all the time in early spring. https://t.co/G1QL9dSmts
— Dr. Jen M (@AwesomeBiota) February 17, 2023
Now, I know what biofilm is because a) I do a lot of fishing and see it a fair amount and wondered what it was, so I asked my high school science teacher and b) I tend to pay more attention to the natural world than most people. The scientist in the Tweet above got railed on pretty hard by people, mostly GOPer types. Not surprising because attacking science is one of their many awful pastimes, and when they reply with “I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS BEFORE” my instant thought is, well, of course you would say that. You are the type who doesn’t really pay attention to things like biofilm and believes in Qanon.
The other hot rumor that just showed up recently was covered this week by Cassandra, who wrote about the Great Dust and Pollen Freakout. She wrote about the wildfire dust, but there was also a little hysteria about pollen. We have had a very mild winter here in the East so everything is 2-3 weeks ahead.
Mysterious white dust that fell from the sky overnight is identified https://t.co/Xn43Ll2EDL
— Daily Mail US (@DailyMail) March 1, 2023
Most people know what the Fog of War is, but we often see a Fog of Disaster after incidents like TMI and the East Palestine crash. Rumors fly, and sometimes it can even make people downplay the suffering of those affected by the accident. Which is just as bad as overreacting, and quite often, very hypocritical – I doubt anyone would be “lol whatevs” if several train cars full of vinyl chloride were burned near their home.
Because while rumors can be ridiculous, quite often the concerns that launch them are based on real worries that end up being backed up with data.
PS Biden still should go to East Palestine. Not the end of the world if he doesn’t, but it would help some people feel better.
The last word goes to The Rumour, British spelling.
One thought on “The Post-Disaster Rumor Mill”
Great post. There were many rumors in New Orleans after Katrina. The most pernicious one was that the levees were breached by a bomb or other nefarious means.