Home of the Free, Land of the Toxic Chemicals

Since the industrial revolution in the U.S., businesses have leveraged the power of chemistry to bring to life new products and technologies. But this unrelenting thirst for innovation often resulted in deadly byproducts, many of which continue to haunt many Americans financially and medically. The improper disposal of chemical compounds, as well as the presence of natural radioactive decay products from local geologic formations (radon), have resulted in the occurrence of indoor air pollution.This pollution, which may contain cancer-causing compounds, passes from the underlying soils and groundwater into buildings by a process known as vapor intrusion.

Many of the carcinogens that are present in our subsurface soil and groundwater have been there for decades

At the time, these disposal practices were acceptable (as well as illegal) among manufacturing facilities, military bases, and “approved” recycling and disposal sites. This improper disposal, however, has resulted in the presence of millions of tons of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that are migrating through soil and groundwater throughout the U.S. Local VOC areas, known as subsurface plumes, can slowly emit carcinogenic and other toxic vapors which may infiltrate into overlying buildings.

Responsible Parties and Superfund Sites

In addition to localized plumes that are managed by State and local regulatory agencies, the U.S. EPA is responsible for identifying and managing “uncontrolled” waste sites that may not have a designated Responsible Party. These sites, which often contain VOCs and other hazardous wastes, are known as Superfund Sites. These types of sites are often large in scale, and because there is often no known Responsible Party, cleanups are very time consuming, complex and costly.

The Broader Concern: Lack of Awareness

The main concern with Superfund sites is that the public, including homeowners and business entities, often do not understand the environmental and health impacts posed by Superfund sites and industrial locations. Broadening awareness about these and other environmental contamination sites is particularly important to ensure the health and wellbeing of potentially affected people.

Vapor Intrusion can Affect your Community

The following six environmental assessment and remediation cases illustrate how our past practices of managing chemical wastes have resulted in the wide-spread occurrence of vapor intrusion.

1. California

Google Campus - Mountain View, CA

In 2013, Google learned that a large trichloroethylene (TCE) plume had amassed beneath their campus in Mountain View and had begun to seep up from contaminated soil and groundwater into the buildings via vapor intrusion.

The massive VOC plume was left behind by the early tech companies in Silicon Valley, who used TCE as a solvent in manufacturing the first silicon computer chip in 1981.

The plume will take decades to clean up, but in the interim, the company has installed sub slab depressurization (SSD) systems to help mitigate the possibility that TCE will enter the workspaces. SSD systems are designed to draw the vapors away before they can rise into the buildings as vapor intrusion.

2. New York

Former IBM Endicott Campus

From 1935 to the mid-1980s, IBM used TCE to clean metal parts in degreasers at its industrial campus in Endicott. In 1979, the company discovered that some of the TCE had pooled in groundwater beneath the facility and appeared to be migrating. The site has been classified as a Class 2 Superfund site meaning that the site is considered a “significant threat to the public health or the environment“and action is required.

Now, 40 years later, cleanup continues but the soil contamination is still a problem at the site. A local business owner in the area continues to be impacted by the contamination - potential property buyers often become disinterested when learning that a toxic plume sits beneath the property. This small business owner is an example of the many property owners who face financial ramifications of soil contamination.

3. Indiana

Franklin, Indiana

Thirteen-year-old Emma Grace Findley was having a routine eye exam in 2014 when her doctor found an anomaly in her eye, an indication of brain swelling.

Months later, Emma passed away at age thirteen. She was one of 58 other children in Johnson County, Indiana, who were diagnosed with cancer over the past decade (according to If It Was Your Child a nonprofit).

Tests done by an environmental consulting firm working with the city found levels of TCE that were more than 252 times the safe limit set by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Another nearby sewer sample showed levels nearly 150 times that limit. PCE, was also found in the sewers at levels 53 times IDEM's limit for residential soil gas screening

4. Michigan

Sturgis, MI

In February 2017, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Director Heidi Grether told state lawmakers that there could be more than 4,200 potential vapor intrusion sites across Michigan posing a “significant public health threat.” In addition, approximately 276 Michigan residents were ushered out of or barred from homes, apartments, nonprofit locations and a preschool center since the discovery of soil vapor intrusion in the area.

5. Massachusetts

Nyanza Waste Dump Superfund Site - Ashland, Massachusetts

The Nyanza Superfund site is a 35-acre area next to an active industrial complex in Ashland, Massachusetts. From 1917 to 1978, facilities produced textile dyes and dye intermediates, inorganic colloidal solids, and acrylic polymers on the site. Nyanza,Inc. used the space from 1965 until 1978. Large volumes of industrial wastewater containing high levels of acids and numerous organic and inorganic chemicals, including mercury, were generated by these facilities, leading to soil and groundwater contamination.

Initially, the plan was to excavate the soil, but due to the discovery of additional contamination, EPA reevaluated the remedy. After additional data collection and risk assessment, with added emphasis on potential indoor air contamination, EPA updated the remedy in 2006. The new plan includes the extraction of dense non-aqueous phase liquid (DNAPL) from the groundwater plume as well as the installation of vapor mitigation systems in homes overlying the contaminated plume.

The site is used to this day and is being protected by 41 sub slab depressurization systems to control the risk of vapor intrusion into structures located above the shallow groundwater plume, where the migration of VOC vapors is most likely to occur.

6. Minnesota

St. Louis State Park - Minneapolis, MN

The former owner of a commercial property located at Minnetonka Boulevard and Raleigh Avenue had left trichloroethylene (TCE) on the property as chemical pollution. In January 2020, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency staff said a site in the area of Minnetonka Boulevard and Raleigh Avenue South should be added to the Minnesota Permanent List of Priorities due to the presence of a groundwater plume.The location includes homes, apartments, government offices and commercial businesses. One of the buildings contained several dry-cleaning businesses. Although impacted soil containing a chemical called tetrachloroethylene (PCE) was removed, contamination remains on the site. Elevated levels of PCE and TCE have been found in groundwater and soil vapor samples.

Many buildings in Minneapolis are at risk of vapor intrusion. To protect themselves from liability claims, building owners often install vapor mitigation (extraction) systems. These systems can be augmented with the installation of remote (telemetry) monitoring sensors that verify that the mitigation systems are operational. If the mitigation system goes off-line, the user would immediately be notified if the system is equipped with VaporTrac units. With a VaporTrac unit installed, businesses are able to show that their mitigation systems are operational.

Once mitigation systems are installed, responsible parties must prove the solution is working effectively

Mitigating contaminated soil or groundwater is a lengthy process that often takes years and usually involves legal negotiations and fees, and expensive and lengthy site assessments. In many cases, if remediation does not completely remove the subsurface contaminants, the building owner/operator may wind up installing a vapor intrusion mitigation system such as a sub-slab depressurization (SSD) system.

An SSD system consists of vacuum equipment attached to piping below the building that pulls out soil gases before they are able to infiltrate a home, school, hospital or business. SSD systems are inherently subject to natural influences, like freezing temperatures or accidental breakage. These remediation systems are vital to ensuring the health and safety of the building occupants. A sensor system such as VaporTrac, can remotely monitor and confirm that vacuum pressure is being maintained in the SSD. This remote monitoring is more efficient and less costly than in-person maintenance which is inefficient and expensive. In addition, remote, continuous (24-hour) monitoring is becoming a regulatory requirement in many States.

If you or someone you know is responsible for designing and installation of SSD systems, and making sure that they are operational, consider installing VaporTrac remote telemetry devices. VaporTrac has the capability to confirm that the systems are operating as designed, and that contaminant vapors are removed. If, at any time, the SSD system goes offline, the user will receive an electronic alert. Once the system is up and running, the user will receive an alert saying that the problem has been resolved. Monitoring data is continuously refreshed, uploaded to our secure servers, and is stored to provide users with historical data at any given moment.

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