One of the ways in which toxic waste can harm your family is through what is known as "vapor intrusion," in which toxic chemicals in the groundwater or soil convert to a gas and then seep into buildings, such as a home. This can happen through cracks in basement floors, foundation walls, utility pipes or ventilation systems.
At The Collins Law Firm, we fight on behalf of clients nationwide whose health and property value are threatened by the potentially harmful effects of vapor intrusion. We are here to help you get the results that will make a difference in your life.
When companies carelessly dispose of volatile chemicals like TCE, PCE, vinyl chloride and benzene, that behavior can have serious consequences for the health of those living nearby. What is even worse, the toxic vapor that is often created may go undetected for many years, even as it is causing serious harm. Once the presence of the vapor is finally detected in or underneath the home, the impact on the family’s health and their home’s value may be devastating.
In cases like these, families need protection against the damaging effects of the toxic vapor; a thorough clean-up of the contamination causing the toxic vapor; and compensation for any loss of property value or illness that has resulted.
Few attorneys in the entire country know how to deal with cases such as these. At The Collins Law Firm, our experienced and aggressive trial attorneys know the often complex law and science involved, and work with the most knowledgeable environmental experts to strengthen your family's case.
If you are concerned that your family might be at risk from vapor intrusion, please let us help you. Contact us at (630) 527-1595 for a free consultation.Frequently Asked Questions
- What is Vapor Intrusion?
- How Does Vapor Intrude Into a Home?
- How Do You Know if your Home is at Risk for Vapor Intrusion?
- How Dangerous are the Chemicals in the Vapor?
- What Testing Can be Done to Investigate for Vapor Intrusion?
- How Can You Protect your Family Against Vapor Intrusion?
- Why Should You Hire an Environmental Lawyer for Your Vapor Intrusion Problem?
- What Will Our Experienced Attorneys Do for You?
- What can be Gained by a Vapor Intrusion Lawsuit?
Vapor intrusion happens when chemicals in contaminated groundwater or contaminated soil turn into gas ("vapor"), and then migrate ("intrude") into the air inside of a home or other building. The great concern, of course, is if these chemicals are dangerous to human health, especially if the people breathing the vapors cannot smell the dangerous chemicals, and therefore do not know they are present.
When vapor intrusion occurs, it is typically the result of a process that began many years, perhaps even decades, earlier. There are many possible scenarios. One is that chemicals, which years ago may have been buried, poured down a drain, dumped onto the ground, or leaked from a supply tank at a nearby factory now, years later, have contaminated the area’s soil or groundwater near homes or other buildings. Another possibility is that the chemicals leaked into groundwater from a nearby landfill, which was not adequately lined at the bottom, and therefore the chemicals were allowed to escape. Yet another is that the chemicals leaked from an underground storage tank – such as at a gas station – and infiltrated the groundwater below.How Does Vapor Intrude into a Home?
Once the chemicals have vaporized, they can travel horizontally and vertically through soil, and up from the contaminated groundwater, which was the chemicals’ original source. They move as any gas moves, following the path of least resistance. Vapors may enter a home by any number of ways (called "pathways") including:
- Through even very small cracks or seams in a foundation or floor;
- Through much larger openings in the floor, such as a sump;
- Through expansion joints in a concrete slab; or
- Through any sort of pipe or utility line that allows air to flow into the home from outside.
Once vapor intrusion is proven to be occurring, or is even reasonably expected to be occurring, steps should be immediately taken to protect those breathing (or even potentially breathing) the vapors. Such steps include the installation of any number of "mitigation" systems, the best of which are designed to prevent the contaminated vapors from entering the breathing space in the first place. (See the section on protecting your family against vapor for a discussion of vapor mitigation systems.)How Do You Know if Your Home is at Risk for Vapor Intrusion?
Whether the air inside your home (or office building, for example) is threatened by vapor intrusion depends upon a number of factors, especially the following:
- Proximity. The closer your home is to the original source of the chemicals – for example, factory, landfill, former military site, farm or gas station – the easier it is for the chemicals to migrate that distance. But note: there are documented examples of chemicals traveling in groundwater fully two miles or more from the original source.
- Type of chemical. The concern here is chemicals that readily convert to gas. Such chemicals are known as "volatile organic compounds" (or "VOCs"). The types of VOCs most often associated with vapor intrusion, are:
- Trichloroethylene ("TCE"), a solvent used as a degreasing agent in a variety of industries
- Perchloroethylene ("PERC" or "PCE"), a solvent used abundantly in the dry cleaning industry.
- Dichloroethylene ("DCE"), an industrial solvent and cleaner.
- Vinyl chloride ("VC"), which is formed from TCE and PCE, through a process call "biodegradation."
- Benzene, toluene, MTBE and ethylbenzene, which are petroleum-related chemicals, most frequently entering the environment at gas stations or other industrial facilities where gasoline is used in significant quantities.
Note: The petroleum-related chemicals – benzene, toluene, etc. – degrade relatively quickly, and therefore do not typically pose a vapor intrusion threat more than a few hundred feet from their original source. However, TCE, PCE, DCE and VC are far more durable, do not degrade as easily, and therefore have been known to migrate much greater distances (even two miles or more) in groundwater from their original source.
- Chemical concentration. The concentrations of VOCs will diminish as they migrate further from their original source. At some point, those VOC concentrations in soil and groundwater become too insignificant to threaten vapor intrusion. However, significant VOC concentrations in soil and groundwater underneath a home, or within a few hundred feet of a home, may (in combination with the other factors discussed on this page) threaten vapor intrusion into the home’s breathing space.
- Groundwater flow direction. Usually, the VOCs threatening vapor intrusion are carried from their original source (factory, landfill, etc.) to a neighborhood by means of the area’s groundwater. The groundwater typically has a distinct and knowable direction in which it flows. If it flows from the factory or landfill (or other contaminant source) toward your home, this of course presents a greater risk of vapor intrusion.
- Depth of contaminated groundwater. The deeper the groundwater carrying the VOC contamination, the less significant the threat of vapor intrusion. This is because the VOC in gas traveling up through soil from the contaminated groundwater will diminish in concentration as it does. Conversely, the shallower the VOC-contaminated groundwater (and, particularly if the VOC concentrations in the groundwater are high) the greater the threat of vapor intrusion into the home. Most sites with a significant threat of vapor intrusion from VOCs in groundwater involve groundwater that is less than 100 feet below the ground surface, and sometimes as shallow as only 5-15 feet below ground surface.
- Nature of the soil. Vapor follows the path of least resistance. Therefore, as VOC-contaminated gas is travelling laterally through soil from the original contaminant source, or vertically upwards from the contaminated groundwater, it naturally moves most readily through porous soil, such as dry silt and sand. It can also migrate readily through cracks and crevasses in bedrock. The vapor moves less readily through hard clay that has no or few openings, or through sand or silt that is wet and hardened from rainfall, for example.
- Building design. The age and quality of a home’s basement and foundation construction can play a significant role in whether VOC-contaminated vapors will find their way into the home’s breathing space. Logically, homes with dirt floors; large, open sumps; significant cracks in the concrete of the basement floor or foundation; and concrete expansion joints offer relatively easy ways for the vapor to enter the home from the soil and groundwater below. However, it must be noted that VOC-contaminated vapors are "creative;" they can slip into the breathing space even of newer, well-constructed homes with no visible means of the vapor’s entry.
- Season, and weather conditions. Significant rainfall can dampen and harden soil, thus providing (likely only temporarily) a barrier to vapor migration. The hard, frozen ground of winter may furnish the same type of temporary barrier. On the other hand, when temperatures are warmer, VOCs will be more volatile, i.e., will convert to vapor more readily. The influence of weather conditions and seasonal variability on the formation and migration of vapor means that, in order for the occupants of a home or office to be confident that their breathing space is not threatened by vapor intrusion, testing must be done during different seasons and weather conditions. In this way, "false negatives" can be ruled out.
Here is a list of the chemicals most likely to be found in the vapor threatening to intrude into breathing spaces of a home. They are known as "Volatile Organic Compounds," or "VOCs," because they are readily converted into vapor:
- TCE: Trichloroethylene (TCE) has been classified as a human carcinogen by the US EPA and the World Health Organization. It is associated with kidney cancer, liver cancer and malignant lymphoma, as well as other cancers. TCE also targets the central nervous system, the immune system, and the male reproductive system. For more information on the health effects of TCE, see our page: What You Need to Know About Trichloroethylene (TCE).
- PCE: The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) considers tetrachloroethylene (PCE) probably carcinogenic to humans. It has been linked to bladder cancer, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in human studies and to other cancers in animal studies. In addition, PCE targets the central nervous system, kidney, liver and reproductive system. For more information on the health effects of PCE, see our page: What You Need to Know About Perchloroethylene (PCE)
- Vinyl Chloride: The World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have determined that vinyl chloride is a known carcinogen. Vinyl chloride exposure is linked to liver, brain, and lung cancer, some cancers of the blood, and other cancers. The primary target of VC toxicity is the central nervous system, however, it can also produce liver changes and immune reactions. For more information on the health effects of vinyl chloride, see our page: What You Need to Know About Vinyl Chloride
- DCE: At this time no government agency has classified 1,2-dichloroethene (DCE) as carcinogenic. However, studies on animals have shown heart, lung and liver damage when the animals breathe high levels of DCE for a period of time, with the damage being more severe the longer the exposure.
- Benzene: Both the US EPA and the World Health Organization have concluded that benzene is carcinogenic to humans. More specifically, exposure to benzene can cause leukemia, particularly acute myelogenous leukemia, often referred to as AML. In addition, the main targets of benzene are the central nervous system, the hematopoietic system and the immune system, and it has been linked to various illnesses. For more information on the health effects of benzene, see our page: What You Need to Know About Benzene.
- Toluene: Toluene has not yet been determined to be a human carcinogen, however, exposure to toluene may negatively affect the function of other systems in the human body. Toluene toxicity primarily targets the central nervous system. Other areas commonly affected by toluene exposure include the immune system, kidneys and liver. For more information on the health effects of toluene, see our page: What You Need to Know About Toluene.
- Xylene: At this time there is insufficient evidence to conclude that xylene is a human carcinogen, however, exposure to xylene is associated with other health effects. The nervous system, respiratory system, cardiovascular system, and kidneys are primarily affected by exposure to xylene. For more information on the health effects of xylene, see our page: What You Need to Know About Xylene.
- Ethylbenzene: The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that ethylbenzene is a possible human carcinogen. In animal studies, exposure to ethylbenzene was linked to kidney, lung, liver and testicular tumors. Further animal studies on ethylbenzene toxicity have shown irreversible inner ear and hearing damage after short term exposure and kidney damage after long term exposure.
- MTBE: The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the EPA have not classified MTBE as carcinogenic, however some animal studies have suggested a possible link between breathing MTBE for a long period of time and kidney and liver cancer. Further animal studies have suggested that drinking MTBE may cause liver and kidney damage, and nervous system effects. For more information on the health effects of MTBE, see our page: What You Need to Know About Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE)
Here are other important things to keep in mind when considering the health threats posed by VOC-contaminated vapors:
- Children, the elderly and those experiencing significant illness are most vulnerable to the health threats posed by VOC-contaminated vapor. This is because these individuals have compromised or (in the case of children) immature immune systems that do not dispose of toxins as readily as the immune systems of healthy adults.
- Some of these VOCs pose an additional danger because we cannot smell them when they are present. While we typically can smell petroleum-related VOCs (benzene, toluene, etc.) we typically cannot smell TCE, PCE, DCE or VC. This means that we can be breathing these VOCs in vapor and not know it.
- Even very low concentrations of these VOCs in our breathing space can be harmful to our health, if we breathe them for a long enough period of time (i.e., months or years, depending on the chemical). Such longer-term exposure is known as "chronic" exposure (as opposed to shorter-term, or "acute," exposure). Therefore, because we usually cannot smell low concentrations of TCE, PCE, DCE and VC, it is possible that they can be present in our breathing space for long enough to injure health, without our even knowing that they are present.
Sub-Slab Testing - The most reliable form of testing for the presence of contaminated vapor is to sample the vapor in the soil near a home or, better yet, beneath the home's foundation (called the "sub slab"). The results of this testing are often immediately available, but should be confirmed by having the samples sent to a laboratory which specializes in analyzing the results of such testing.
There are two other forms of investigation for vapor intrusion that should be mentioned.
Modeling - "Modeling" is an attempt to predict the concentration of contaminated vapor threatening to enter a home's breathing space based upon the concentration of the chemical in the groundwater; the distance between the contaminated groundwater and the home; and other factors. Essentially, modeling substitutes a formula in place of actual testing, mostly to save cost. The theory is that, if the modeling shows that no significant concentration of the chemical will intrude into the home's breathing space, then relatively expensive actual testing for contaminated vapor, and protecting the home's residents against vapor intrusion, need not be done.
The problem is that the modeling can be wrong, concluding that there is no risk of vapor intrusion when in fact the opposite is true. (This is called a 'false negative.") In one famous case in Colorado in 2000 (known as the "Redfield" case), use of a well-accepted modeling formula predicted little or no vapor contamination, when later testing actually revealed significant levels of trichloroethylene ("TCE") and dichloroethylene ("DCE").
Especially because the consequences to a family of a false negative are so serious--i.e., being falsely assured that family members are not breathing contaminated air when in fact the opposite is true--models and formulas are not a reliable substitute for actual testing.
In-home testing - Logic would seem to indicate that the most reliable test to see whether chemical-contaminated vapor is intruding into a home would be a test of the actual air inside the home.
But many experts disagree, for basically two reasons:
- Indoor air quality changes significantly from day to day, and even hour to hour. As a result, sampling one day may not indicate a problem even though sampling the very next day might. In fact, it is even possible that sampling in one area of the home might not show a problem, even though sampling in a different area would have.
- It is not always possible to be sure that chemicals detected in indoor air testing came from outside the home, rather than from products that may be used or stored inside the home. The chemicals of greatest concern for vapor intrusion - "volatile organic compounds," such as TCE - can also be found in products that are sometimes found in homes, such as paint, cleaning supplies and air fresheners. Testing indoor air for the presence of such VOCs cannot distinguish between a VOC from in-home paint, for example, and a VOC from a factory up the road.
Therefore, the most reliable testing for the possibility of vapor intrusion into a home's breathing space is to test the vapor outside the home, either in the yard or, preferably, in the sub-slab.
Important: For accurate results, you must conduct multiple tests
Any testing must consider the fact that vapor is always "on the move", and that its movement is often unpredictable. As a result, no single test is a reliable indicator of the presence or absence of contaminated vapor near a home, let alone throughout an entire neighborhood. For example, contaminated vapor can be found in a high concentration at a single location one day, but not be detected at all at that same location the following day. It can be found in one family's front yard one day, but not at the home next door, or across the street, and yet testing the following week can show the reverse results. Therefore, a reliable understanding of the presence or absence of vapor at a single home may require 4-6 separate tests on that property throughout the year. Likewise, a reliable understanding of vapor in a neighborhood requires multiple tests at multiple testing locations throughout the neighborhood.
A final word: no matter the type of testing for vapor intrusion, the testing should be paid for by the company or persons responsible for creating the threat in the first place. And government's environmental regulators should oversee the testing, to ensure it is properly done, and likely to yield reliable results.How Can You Protect your Family Against Vapor Intrusion?
The best temporary protection against vapor intrusion is the installation of a "vapor mitigation system" ("VMS"). One such VMS is a "sub-slab depressurization" system, which operates like a vacuum, sucking the air below the home's foundation, and venting it safely out to the atmosphere above the home, via a pipe running up the length of the home from the "vacuum." The idea is to intercept the contaminated vapors before they have the chance to enter the home's breathing space, and then send them out into the atmosphere where their danger will quickly dissipate.
Such systems must run continuously in order to be effective. There is, of course, a cost to this, as the systems require electricity in order to function. There is also a cost to have a qualified professional install the system in the first place, ensure that it is functioning properly and then periodically inspect and repair the system, as may be needed. The company or persons responsible for creating the threat of vapor intrusion should bear this cost.
It should be noted that even the best designed and installed VMS is not perfect. It is not guaranteed to intercept all contaminated vapor, or to not periodically malfunction.
This is why the VMS is only a temporary means to protect the home's residents against vapor intrusion. The permanent solution, of course, is that the contaminated groundwater, or soil, or both, which is serving as the source of the vapor contamination must be cleaned up. Such remediation can be very expensive, and take a very long time, decades even. This is because, by the time a contamination problem has gone un-remediated to the point that vapor intrusion into a home is threatened, the contamination has been in the environment for a very long time, and cleaning it up therefore cannot be done quickly or inexpensively.
As with the cost of installing, operating and maintaining a VMS, the cost of remediating the source of the contamination should be borne by the company or persons responsible for the contamination in the first place.Why Should You Hire an Environmental Lawyer for Your Vapor Intrusion Problem?
Vapor intrusion problems often present the "perfect storm" of circumstances that work against threatened families:
- The stakes are very high. If there is a threat that dangerous chemicals are intruding into the breathing space of your family home, the health of your family members, not to mention the value of your property, are at risk.
- The problems are expensive to solve. That means that the solution to vapor intrusion is beyond the financial capability of most families. But it also means that the polluter responsible for the contamination is not going to want to spend the money necessary--maybe millions--to protect those it has put in harm's way, and to clean up the source of the contamination.
- The polluter has a lawyer. That lawyer is there to fight against you, your neighbors and any government regulator that may be pushing the polluter to take action.
- The government cannot always help. Even though the government regulator is supposed to be protecting you, it often does not have the resources (money, lawyers, political muscle, etc.) to fight a legal war with the polluter. This is a tremendous advantage for the polluter, and usually means that the people threatened by the vapor intrusion are not protected as they deserve to be.
This is where an environmental lawyer experienced in handling vapor intrusion cases can be of enormous help.What Will Our Experienced Attorneys Do for You?
There are many aspects of a vapor contamination case that are extremely complicated and difficult. Our lawyers have the expertise, from handling many vapor intrusion cases, to represent your best interests. Our lawyers will:
- Help "level the playing field". The polluter will no longer be the only one with a lawyer to make the legal system work to its advantage. Having your own lawyer sends the signal to the polluter that you are serious about getting a solution; that you will go to court, if necessary, to claim your legal rights; and that the polluter must be more respectful and transparent in dealing with you.
- Communicate on your behalf with the polluter and government. You won't any longer feel mismatched and taken-advantage of by trying to go one-on-one with the polluter's lawyers and experts who know more than you do about all of this.
- Help you understand the often scientifically and legally complicated "language" of vapor intrusion problems. Vapor intrusion threats involve the intersection of the sciences of chemistry; toxicology; hydrogeology and geology, and possibly others. Your legal rights are contained in seemingly complex state and local statutes and environmental regulations. All of this can be daunting for even very well-educated lay people. However, in order to make good decisions for your family, you must gain at least a basic understanding of all of this. An experienced environmental lawyer will help you with this, even by hiring scientific experts where necessary.
- Get you protected more quickly. Even the threat that chemical-contaminated vapor is coming into your home means that quick action is necessary. A vapor mitigation system must be installed on your home, to best ensure that the vapors do not even enter the home in the first place. Very likely, you will get this protection sooner than later if a lawyer is demanding it for you.
- Get you compensation, if warranted. Vapor intrusion injures property values, and can sometimes lead to significant inconvenience to a family regarding how it uses its home. For example, intruding vapor will sometimes require a family to abandon use of its basement, or its home altogether, until the vapor intrusion threat is eliminated. Of course, another kind of compensatory damage is for any injury to health that may have been caused by a person's exposure to contaminated vapor. Compensation for illness, loss in property value, and inconvenience is not something that even a well-intentioned government regulator can secure for a family. Government does not have the power to demand compensation for the victims of vapor intrusion. Only a lawyer can fight to get you the compensation you deserve.
- Only charge a fee if you recover money. Most environmental lawyers who work for pollution victims are paid by means of a "contingency" fee, or "statutory" fee. A contingency fee is a percentage--often, 33.3%--of whatever money the lawyer collects for you. If the lawyer collects nothing for you, you don't have to pay anything. A statutory fee is one found in some environmental laws that your lawyer may put to work for you. These laws state that, if you are successful in your case against the polluter, then the polluter must pay your lawyer.
The bottom line is that the stakes--health and property--involved in vapor intrusion problems, as well as the legal and scientific complexity of those problems, means that any family potentially affected by them really must have its own experienced lawyer.What Can be Gained by a Vapor Intrusion Lawsuit?
There are two goals of a vapor intrusion lawsuit: protection against future vapor intrusion, and financial compensation for damage and injury that were caused by vapor intrusion (or the threat of it).
Protection: Vapor intrusion can really be dangerous. The chemicals that convert into a gas (or "vapor") and threaten to invade ("intrude") into the breathing space of your home are bad news. TCE, PCE, Vinyl chloride, benzene--just to name a few of the chemicals that easily vaporize--threaten serious health injury if breathed regularly, ranging from a disruption of the central nervous and immune systems to an increased likelihood of certain cancers. Children, the sick and elderly are most in danger. For more information on individual chemicals see our Environmental Blog.
This means that, if there is even a threat of vapor intrusion, humans need protection against it. If the polluter will not voluntarily provide this protection, then you may file a lawsuit to ask a court to compel the polluter to provide it. This is called seeking "injunctive relief", or an "injunction".
There are two kinds of protection you may seek in a lawsuit: short-term, and permanent.
Temporary protection usually comes in the form of a "vapor mitigation system", or VMS. While there are many kinds of VMS, the basic function of each is to prevent the chemical-contaminated vapor from entering the home in the first place. Often, this is accomplished by an experienced technician creating a system which suctions vapors from under the home (in the "sub-slab"), and then pipes them to above the home's roof level, where they are dispersed harmlessly to the outdoor air.
Why is a VMS only temporary?
Because the installation of even the very best-quality VMS does not eliminate the source of the problem, which is the chemical contamination in the soil or groundwater, that threatens to convert to a vapor. So long as that contamination remains in place, the threat of vapor intrusion remains. Under these circumstances, the VMS functions like a gas mask. It prevents a person from having to breathe the toxic gas, but does not eliminate it.
That is why long-term, or permanent, protection is also necessary. Specifically, the contaminated soil and groundwater need to be cleaned up. Now, this can be a very expensive and decades-long process. Nevertheless, until it is done, the families will continue to be threatened by vapor intrusion, and a well-maintained VMS must remain in operation.
Compensation: The reason that people need protection against these chemicals--i.e., they are dangerous to human health--is the same reason why, if the chemicals are discovered to be in nearby soil or groundwater, threatening to intrude in vapor form into your home, the value of your home diminishes. This really doesn't require any more explanation than this: Who wants to buy a home where the indoor air is threatened by toxic vapors? Many home buyers will shop elsewhere, and the loss of these buyers means your home is now worth less.
Likewise, vapor intrusion, or even the threat of it, may seriously disrupt a family's enjoyment of their home. For example, so long as the threat exists, some families will (quite sensibly) avoid using the home's basement, since that is the most likely entry point for contaminated vapors. In extreme cases--for example, where high concentrations of an especially dangerous chemical might intrude--families will evacuate their homes, until they can be assured that the threat of vapor intrusion no longer exists.
In most states, where vapor intrusion has caused a home to lose value, and/or the family's use of the home to be significantly diminished, legal action can be taken to secure financial compensation for those losses.
The saddest reason to have to seek compensation via a lawsuit, of course, is if someone's health has allegedly been injured by exposure to toxic vapors. Such injuries are typically quite serious--cancer, for example--and the legal cases can be quite complex. For example, a person claiming to have been injured by vapor intrusion must have scientific proof both that he/she was exposed to the contaminated vapor long enough for the illness to have developed, and that the vapor (and not something else, like smoking, or family history) was the cause of the illness.
Finally, while filing a lawsuit to secure protection against vapor intrusion, or compensation for serious injury to health or property caused by vapor intrusion, is a very serious undertaking that requires great legal and scientific skill, it is often the only way for a family or injured person to vindicate their rights against the misconduct of a polluter.
Our lawyers know what it takes to get justice for our clients, who are facing long-term health effects--such as cancer and birth defects--or loss of property values due to dangerous chemical vapor intrusion. We not only pursue monetary compensation, we work to force corporations to clean up the air, soil and water so that families can live in their homes without fear.
As a client of The Collins Law Firm, you will benefit from our knowledge, experience and resources, which we will put to use to keep you and your family safe, and to pursue compensation for any physical or financial damages. Call us at (630) 527-1595 (dial extension 221 for Shawn Collins) to schedule a free consultation, if you are concerned that your family might be at risk from vapor intrusion.Additional Resources