Officials make a show of drinking East Palestine water in attempt to prove it’s safe

State and federal officials have taken part in photo ops in the aftermath of the Feb. 3 train derailment.

Larry Culler, with a white beard and a fluorescent green baseball cap and Ed Byard, in beard and plaid shirt, load batches of water into the back of an SUV.
Volunteers Larry Culler and Ed Byard load water into a car after the derailment of a train carrying hazardous waste in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb 23. (Alan Freed/Reuters)

In an effort to reassure the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, who are still concerned about their health in the aftermath of the toxic chemical release from a train derailment there on Feb. 3, officials have turned to an old tactic: drinking the local water to show it’s safe.

While government agencies have repeatedly stated that tests have shown that the municipal water supply and air quality are safe, locals have reported such symptoms as dizziness, headaches and rashes, after tankers of chemicals were burned off in the days following the crash.

On Feb. 8, two days after an evacuation order was issued in the area, residents were urged to return home, despite the lingering smell in the air. Gov. Mike DeWine later admitted that he would be nervous about returning if he lived there.

“Look, I think that I would be drinking the bottle of water, and I would be continuing to find out what the tests were showing, as far as the air,” DeWine said at a Feb. 14 press conference. “I would be alert and concerned, but I think I would probably be back in my house.”

Related: How dangerous train derailments affect communities like East Palestine

A week later, DeWine was among the officials attempting to prove the water was safe, by drinking it. Along with DeWine, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, and EPA Administrator Michael Regan all made a point of drinking the water in front of cameras, with Regan noting, “That’s good.” (Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, also posted a video of himself drinking the water in East Palestine on Feb. 16, even though he represents a district near Houston.) In a video posted by Husted, a number of officials, including the mayor as well as the police and fire chiefs, offer a toast before drinking the water.

Experts say that taste tests of this kind also tend to gloss over the fact that in many instances, drinking one glass of contaminated water may not have any adverse effects, by comparison with the risks to permanent residents of prolonged exposure to the water. One of the chemicals involved in the spill and burnoff, vinyl chloride, is a known carcinogen.

“A single small exposure from which a person recovers quickly is unlikely to cause delayed or long-term effects,” states the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Exposure to vinyl chloride over many years can affect the liver, nervous system, and skin. Long-term exposure can cause a rare form of liver cancer.”

There is no formal term for this act of political stagecraft, but the Trillbilly Worker’s Party — a leftist political podcast based in Kentucky — floated the term “The Devil’s Milkshake” during a February 2020 episode. One of the hosts, Terrence Ray, defined it to Yahoo News as “when an environmental disaster occurs, and the people living around it or impacted by it get angry. And the public officials come out, and they either drink or eat a piece of the supposedly poisoned material in question.”

Many in the East Palestine area used private wells rather than the municipal water system, so experts have advised continuous testing of water, soil and air on their property.

“It is unclear how much of this volatile chemical escaped into the air or burned before entering surface waters and soil, but vinyl chloride is highly mobile in soils and water and can persist for years in groundwater,” wrote Murray McBride, a professor at Cornell, earlier this month. “It is advisable that farmers and other residents in this area test their wells, over the next few months at least, for the presence of the spilled chemicals including vinyl chloride, in order to protect the health of humans and livestock.”

After other disasters, the EPA has been known to dub stricken areas safe prematurely. When New Yorkers were told by the agency that the air in downtown Manhattan was safe in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, testing later found that to be inaccurate. Then-Director Christine Todd Whitman admitted 15 years later that she had been wrong. More than 4,600 first responders and survivors enrolled in the World Trade Center Health program have died, and those in the program have seen increased rates of cancer.

President Barack Obama, looking determined, holds up a glass of apparently crystal-clear filtered water.
President Barack Obama holds up a glass of filtered water from Flint, Mich., a city struggling with the effects of drinking water contaminated with lead, in a speech there on May 4, 2016. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Perhaps the most famous example of the Devil’s Milkshake occurred in 2016, when then-President Barack Obama visited Flint, Mich., where the water was polluted with high levels of lead. While speaking in Flint, Obama twice drank filtered water, saying he didn’t usually participate in “stunts,” but wanted to make a point that the water was safe.

“This used a filter,” Obama said. “The water around this table was Flint water, and it just confirms what we know scientifically, which is, if you’re using a filter, if you’re installing it, then Flint water at this point is drinkable.”

The moment was captured in Michael Moore’s 2018 documentary “11/9,” which included criticism from residents and side angles showing Obama briefly touching the glass to his lips. Obama’s stunt was a stripped-down version of then-Gov. Rick Snyder’s pledge a month prior that he would drink Flint water for 30 days. Snyder, a Republican, was charged in 2021 for his role in the poisoning of the majority-Black city.

“I do think that maybe the Flint thing was a misguided attempt at showing solidarity,” Ray said of Obama’s visit. “I really think that he probably thought, ‘Hey, this will be my way of showing them that I care,’ which is, you know, just another way of showing how detached and disconnected a lot of these leaders are from what's going on on the ground. That's probably the best way to understand the Devil's Milkshake: It's like a measurement of the distance between public leaders and their constituents or impacted residents — or anyone impacted by environmental pollution, industrial disaster or anything like that.”

Other examples include when Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., drank fracking liquid to demonstrate how safe he said it was when he was serving as governor, or another instance that has stuck with Ray: Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe eating rice from the area around the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Expanding on the concept in a piece published Thursday in The Baffler, Ray has found what is potentially the first example of a Devil’s Milkshake, in 1850s New York City, where an alderman defended dairy companies amid a “swill milk” scandal that killed thousands of infants nationwide. Ray also noted Britain's agriculture minister trying to feed his daughter a hamburger in order to undercut concerns over "mad cow disease" in 1990, and Peruvian officials attempting to prove that the spread of cholera in raw fish had been overhyped, by eating it live on television a year later.

A thin film of petrochemicals paints oysterlike shapes over a bed of pebbles.
Petroleum-based chemicals float on top of the water in Leslie Run creek on Feb. 20 in East Palestine, after being swirled up from sediment on the bottom. (Michael Swensen/Getty Images)

Ray says that living in Kentucky, he’s seen Devil’s Milkshakes consumed in person, including in Martin County, where the water was so contaminated it smelled like diesel fuel. When he was attending a town hall there, he recalled, “A public official kind of ran to the front of the room and demanded a glass of water to demonstrate," probably, he said, to show that no changes needed to be made and to tamp down public opposition.

“I think part of the reason why this is such an interesting issue for me, and why I wanted to pick a name for this in the first place, was because I live in eastern Kentucky, and for a long time, I was involved in efforts around mountaintop removal, like getting coal miners to stop polluting rivers and water supplies,” Ray said. “And so there's always this question of, is the public water supply safe?”

Ray noted that it’s difficult to track the history of the Devil’s Milkshake, because without a formal term to describe the phenomenon in common currency, it's not easy to do research on previous instances. He concedes that there is no quantitative data to prove this, but said he believes they have become more frequent. This might be because it is so much easier now to spread videos on social media, because of a sense that disasters are occurring more regularly, or simply because people have so little trust in institutions today that politicians feel they must do something.

“There are probably a lot of reasons, probably the foremost of which is that environmental disaster just seems like it's becoming more frequent,” Ray said. “Whether that's true or not doesn't really matter: I think people perceive that that's the truth. And so I think that politicians, in turn, perceive that they have to be seen as doing something about it.”