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:
(1) What is vinyl chloride and how did it get into the groundwater? Vinyl chloride is a manufactured chemical, meaning that it does not occur naturally in the environment. The vinyl chloride recently detected in the groundwater east of the Livonia Ford plant was probably created when another related chemical–trichloroethylene, or “TCE”–underwent a chemical process known as “biodegradation”. Specifically, after the TCE was used in a manufacturing process, usually as a “degreasing” agent to clean parts, it was then dumped, spilled or buried, and over time bled down through the soil, ultimately winding up in the area’s groundwater, which flows underneath the neighborhood east of the Ford plant. During that migration, the TCE biodegraded into vinyl chloride.
(2) Can vinyl chloride harm human health? Yes. Vinyl chloride is dangerous. It is a known “carcinogen”, a causer of cancer in humans, given sufficient exposure. That is not the conclusion of a lawyer, but rather of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; the International Agency for Research on Cancer; the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Cancer Institute, among other organizations whose job it is to investigate the health effects of chemicals on human beings. The National Cancer Institute, for example, finds that vinyl chloride exposure is associated with an increased risk of a rare form of liver cancer (hepatic angiosarcoma), as well as brain and lung cancers, and lymphoma and leukemia. In addition, according to the ASTDR, vinyl chloride can significantly disturb the central nervous system.
(3) If those in my home or office don’t drink the contaminated water, can we still be exposed to the vinyl chloride? It is possible, and actually quite common, because of a process called “vapor intrusion”. Vinyl chloride belongs to a family of “volatile” chemicals. That means that vinyl chloride in groundwater turns into a gas or “vapor” when it is exposed to air. Then, in vapor form, it can rise upward from the groundwater through soil, and penetrate homes and invade the indoor air that people breathe. (See item (5) below, for a more detailed explanation about how vapor can migrate.)
(4) Is vapor intrusion occurring to the east of the Ford plant? The information publicly available does not tell us whether vapor intrusion is, or is not, occurring. Ford does not appear yet to have conducted the tests which can provide the answer. It is important to know, however, that there are several factors present in the neighborhood to the east of the Livonia Ford plant that cause a concern for possible vapor intrusion, and which therefore make testing for it more urgent. For example, the nature of the chemical involved; the age of the buildings; and the shallow depth of the contaminated groundwater all suggest vapor intrusion as a possibility:
- Vinyl chloride is highly volatile, meaning that it readily turns into vapor.
- The age of the neighborhood’s homes and buildings-many of them built in the 1940’s-tells us that there are probably cracks in the basement floors or foundation walls, or other openings in the floors such as sump pumps, which provide pathways for the vaporized vinyl chloride to slip inside.
- The groundwater now known to be contaminated with vinyl chloride is as shallow as 3-5 feet in some places. This means that the vapor does not have far to travel upward from the groundwater to get to homes.
(5) If vinyl chloride was not found in the groundwater on my property, am I “in the clear”? No. Whether or not the chemical was detected in a single test of the groundwater on your property is not an accurate predictor of whether you have a vapor intrusion risk. One reason for this is the difficulty in getting an accurate sample of this particular chemical. Vinyl chloride releases so quickly to the air that some testing methods will miss it altogether, or underestimate the chemical’s concentration. Another reason is that a groundwater test one day on your property could show no vinyl chloride, but nonetheless you could have a vapor intrusion threat to your home, and vice versa. This seeming contradiction is explained by the basic behavior of vapor. Think of the vapor as a “cloud” of gas that forms off of the groundwater. Once formed, the cloud’s movement is as variable and unpredictable as the movements, say, of a puff of smoke coming out of a chimney, buffeted this way and that by air currents. What this unpredictability means is that the vapor cloud does not only pose intrusion risk for the structures immediately above the contaminated groundwater that created the cloud. The vapor cloud is a threat to multiple structures in its area, and will remain so for as long as there is significant groundwater contamination to feed it.
(6) Is Ford correct in saying that there is “no health risk” and that the “extent of the vinyl chloride has successfully been defined”? Let’s all hope so. But Ford has not proven that either of these statements is true, at least not based on the information publicly available. Ford has not yet tested to determine whether the vinyl chloride in the groundwater has turned into a vapor cloud; if so, how far upwards and laterally the vapor cloud may have migrated; and therefore whether human beings are being exposed to the vapor. Until proper testing has been undertaken, we don’t know whether there is “no risk to health” or whether the “extent of the vinyl chloride has been successfully defined”. The insidious nature of vapor intrusion makes testing for it, and, if necessary, immediately protecting people against it, especially important. Because if vinyl chloride-contaminated vapor is intruding into the air that people breathe in a home, then the exposure is 24/7. People are breathing all the time, even as they sleep. On the other hand, if the problem instead were vinyl chloride in the family’s water supply (which appears not to be the case here), then the threat would not be as constant, and to some degree, would be controllable. People don’t have to drink the water. But they do have to breathe.
(7) What kind of testing should be done? Vapor testing must occur in two locations-in the neighborhood, and on Ford’s own property:
- Neighborhood: Ford needs to test whether there is vinyl chloride in vapor form in the neighborhood, as well as under, and inside, the homes and other buildings. Published reports say that Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) wants this testing to be done, but it is not clear how forcefully DEQ is insisting on the testing. There are several tests designed to provide these answers. One is a “soil gas” test. This kind of test is often taken on streets or rights of way in a neighborhood, on residential properties or even in the “sub slabs” underneath homes, to determine if contaminated vapor is present, i.e., if vinyl chloride is vaporizing off of the shallow contaminated groundwater. The other test is of indoor air. This test is usually undertaken, at least in the beginning of a vapor intrusion investigation in a home, in the basement, where the vapor would be most likely to be found if it has penetrated inside. If vinyl chloride is found either in the sub slab, or especially inside the home, then it is necessary that the home be outfitted with a “vapor mitigation system” designed to (as well as technology will allow) prevent contaminated vapor from entering the home until the source of the contamination–the groundwater–can be adequately cleaned up.
- Ford’s property: Assuming that the chemical contamination originated on Ford’s property, then extensive testing must be done there, as well. Why? Because the nature of the contamination on Ford’s property-including how it got started, where it is, how deep it is, and how much is left-defines the continuing threat to the people and structures in the neighborhood to the east. In other words, what is still on Ford’s property may be headed their way. Also, vapor testing should be done on Ford’s property, much like it must be done in the neighborhood. Information about whether there is vinyl chloride vapor on Ford’s property, and if so, how it is behaving, helps scientists understand how the vapor will behave in the neighborhood. The more information, the better.
The bottom line to all of this is that the detection of dangerous vinyl chloride in the shallow groundwater underneath some of the homes and buildings east of the Livonia Ford plant demands that further testing be done now to determine whether the chemical is vaporizing, and threatening the air that people are breathing inside those structures. Until this can be determined, no assurances can be responsibly given about the “health risks to residents” and whether the “extent of the vinyl chloride has been successfully defined.”
For further information about vapor intrusion and chemical contamination, please watch these Collins Law Firm videos.