Ethylene Oxide/Sterigenics Updates

Articles Tagged with vapor contamination

Wichita-300x218I’ve been an environmental lawyer for more than 20 years, working for communities whose homes, air, and water have been polluted by industry’s careless disposal of dangerous chemicals.  I’ve seen government respond aggressively to protect its citizens under these circumstances, but more often not so aggressively.  I’ve even seen government pretend that the contamination is not as bad as it really is to justify not doing anything about it.

But I’ve never seen a state government so matter-of-factly abandon its citizens in need of protection as the State of Kansas did to the residents of more than 1,000 homes in the Historically Black neighborhoods that are located Northeast of downtown Wichita, including the Wichita Independent, Northeast Millair, and Northeast Highgate neighborhoods.

Kansas should be ashamed of itself.  It must immediately reverse course and do its duty to protect its citizens against dangerous chemical contamination.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for house-vapor-hh-001.gifIf you have recently been told, probably by the EPA or a state agency, that there is a possibility of vapor contamination in your neighborhood, what does that mean and what should you do now?

First of all, what is vapor intrusion?

Vapor intrusion can happen when the groundwater in your neighborhood is contaminated with a chemical or chemicals known as volatile organic compounds like TCE, PCE, vinyl chloride, benzene, or toluene. These chemicals can turn into a gas and come back up through the soil and get inside homes, contaminating the air that people are breathing. That can be a serious threat to your health and is called vapor contamination.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for house-vapor-hh-001.gifThe threat that chemicals contaminating groundwater are turning into a gas (‘vaporizing”) and drifting upward to intrude into the breathing space of overlying homes exists in many neighborhoods throughout the country. And this threat will remain with us for decades, as we continue to try to deal with nearly a century of the environmental recklessness of companies that spilled, poured, buried and dumped toxic chemicals because it was cheaper to get rid of them that way.

That is why the residents of these neighborhoods are being approached by polluters and government officials who want the homeowners’ permission to come onto their property, and test to see if vapor contamination is present.

If you are approached for this permission, here’s what you should know/do:

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for vaporintrusion.jpgHow long after the discovery of chemical contamination in groundwater should the government be checking to see if those chemicals have turned into a gas (“vapor”), and migrated upward to intrude into the breathing space of homes?

They shouldn’t wait a quarter of a century, that’s for sure.

News just broke out of Bellaire, Ohio that the EPA will soon be testing to see if perchloroethylene (PCE), known to be in area groundwater since the 1990s, is intruding in vapor form into overlying homes and businesses. PCE belongs to a family of chemicals known as VOC’s– “volatile organic compounds”–precisely because they convert to gas so readily. PCE, TCE (trichloroethylene), DCE (dichloroethylene) and VC (vinyl chloride) are among the VOC’s which were used by factories beginning more than 100 years ago as industrial cleaners (“degreasers”), and then often recklessly dumped, spilled or buried, and left to bleed down through the soil and into groundwater supplies. PCE was notoriously used and dumped by dry cleaners, which seems to have been the problem in Bellaire.

Do you live near a factory, a landfill, a farming operation, or a gas station? If you do, you should be aware of the possibility of “vapor intrusion”.

Vapor intrusion is a process in which chemical contamination– which the factory, landfill, etc., caused by disposing of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the area soil or groundwater– converts into a gas (called “vapor”) form, which then migrates.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for vaporintrusion.jpg
This migrating vapor searches for homes and other structures to enter and can do so through even the tiniest cracks in basement floors and foundation walls. If it does, then the air that the people inside are breathing may be contaminated.

Will President Trump and the man he appointed to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, rig our system for determining which sites are the most environmentally dangerous in the country by ignoring the threat of vapor intrusion that these sites pose to human beings living near them?

Sadly, there are many thousands of industrial sites around the US that are badly contaminated. These are sites where, years ago, companies dumped, spilled, or buried toxic chemicals. The key question for each of these sites is: does it threaten human health? Can its dangerous chemicals travel in water or air to where people live and work?

For years, the US has evaluated these contaminated sites to determine which pose the greatest threat to Americans, and therefore which deserved the greatest attention and resources for getting cleaned up. The most contaminated sites appear on the “Superfund National Priorities List.” They are often referred to as “Superfund” sites.

Recently, Ford Motor Company sent a letter to the owners of homes and businesses to the immediate east of Ford’s Transmission Plant in Livonia, Michigan, to deliver the unfortunate news that a chemical known as “vinyl chloride” is contaminating the shallow groundwater in their neighborhood. The revelation of this serious groundwater contamination demands more and urgent testing, specifically to determine how and where the vinyl chloride may be moving, and whether it is threatening to intrude–in “vapor” form– into the homes and businesses, where people are breathing the air. However, even though it has apparently not done this critical testing, Ford nevertheless wrote in its letter that “there is no health risk to residents” from the contamination, and that the “extent of the vinyl chloride has successfully been defined”.

While Ford may have good intentions, and want to reassure its neighbors, the reassurance is, at best, premature. It may even be wrong. Ford has not done the testing and investigation necessary to prove that its comforting statements are true. These families and business owners do not need unsupported assurances. They have the right to full disclosure from Ford–and from the State of Michigan, if it has important information–of all of the facts so that they can make informed decisions about protecting themselves against any threat to their property and health from the vinyl chloride. They should not have to rely on the good faith of a big company and their government.

As a lawyer who represents families contending with these very same problems and dangerous chemicals, I wanted to offer the following thoughts gained from my experience:

vaporintrusion.jpgBeware of anyone who knows that people may be drinking or breathing dangerous chemicals, and yet doesn’t want to test to learn for certain if the chemicals are actually there. That kind of self-induced ignorance can cost people their health, even their lives.

In my 17+ years as an environmental lawyer, I’ve met many families who have fallen victim to the recklessness of polluters and even some in government, whose cynical creed is: “If you don’t look for contamination, you won’t find it”. They fight against ever having to test for chemical contamination–in water, air, soil. That way, they can use ignorance as an excuse to continue to deny that there is any problem at all, and thereby avoid ever having to pay to clean it up. That is their real goal. You can tell who they are because they often say things like this: “We are aware of no evidence that there are toxic chemicals in these families’ homes.”

Well, of course, you’re not aware of any “evidence”. How could you be? You haven’t bothered to look for it.

For the last 17 years, I and a team of lawyers have been representing families threatened by TCE contamination in their water supply, in the groundwater underneath their homes, and in the air inside their homes (called “vapor intrusion”). Recent reports in the media, unfortunately, describe how TCE, disposed of years ago in Nonantum, Massachusetts has seeped into the groundwater about 60 feet below the surface, and, after turning into a gas (‘vapor”), has risen back up through the soil and intruded into the breathing space of area homes.

Having known many hundreds of families over the years who were horrified to receive such news about TCE contamination in their homes and communities, my heart goes out to the families of Nonantum. I know many of them are scared- “What can this chemical do to me and my family?” they will ask. They have important questions that deserve answers such as: “How long has this contamination been in my neighborhood, and in my home, and who is responsible?” And they might well be angry- “Why didn’t someone in government protect us from this, or at least warn us that this could happen?”

With exactly these anxieties in mind, I want to provide some information to the people of Nonantum who are dealing with this, so they might understand what is going on, and how better to protect themselves. Here are some important things I have learned over the years:

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