Regulations Fail to Protect U.S. Residences From Gases
By Mark Obmascik
Denver Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 06, 2002 – Patricia Brice nearly died from lupus – after her twin daughters convulsed with seizures. Ralph Miller woke up paralyzed down his right side. While Bob Gillette battled an inoperable brain tumor, his mother died of liver cancer.
The Hamilton Sundstrand factory in southern Adams County.
More than 4,900 people in a five-state federal study suffered strokes, anemia and urinary tract disorders, including prostate trouble, at rates double or triple the national average. All these people lived in homes polluted with toxic gas.
Beneath dozens of neighborhoods flow streams of industrial chemicals, oozing from local dry cleaners, auto shops and factories. The pollution was supposed to be safe underground as long as people didn't drink it.
But now thousands of Americans, including hundreds in Colorado, face a frightening fact: They've been breathing it. The contamination became gas. It leaked inside their living rooms.
Environmental regulators often did little or nothing. Even today, after two decades of scientific warnings, few state agencies are doing much about the health threat.
The federal agency that's responsible for protecting people from environmental hazards instead has downplayed and even disregarded the problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's main computer model, which judges whether it's safe to breathe inside thousands of polluted homes, often underestimates the threat. And the EPA relied on false scientific information in dropping a planned review of toxic gas in homes around the nation's worst hazardous-waste sites.
EPA also admits that it ignored the threat of toxic gases in the 1980s and 1990s while deciding how dozens of polluted neighborhoods would be cleaned up. The agency now is re-examining cleanups that were supposed to be completed.
That just happened in Adams County.
After 12 years of chemical cleanups, managers of the Hamilton Sundstrand factory believed most work was done. But residents of the Perl Mack neighborhood worried that toxic gas still leaked into their homes. An official EPA statement in August 2000 dismissed the threat: "Based on past groundwater monitoring data, EPA does not expect to find dangerous levels of (gas) in indoor air."
Then the factory finally tested the neighborhood for toxic gas. And found it.
54 homes decontaminated
Since November 2000, 54 homes have been purged of health-threatening levels
of chemical vapors.
"Based on EPA's guidance, we didn't think we'd find anything. But then we went in and tested and we found something," said Scott Moyer, project manager for the Hamilton Sundstrand factory. "It's a new issue. It's the progress of science."
There's probably more bad news to come.
It's not just that many polluted neighborhoods haven't been checked for toxic gases. It's that EPA doesn't even know how many neighborhoods the agency has checked. It may well be a big number.
In an EPA program that oversees major cleanups of still-operating factories, less than half of the 1,714 worst factories have been screened for gas. Managers of EPA's Superfund program, which directs the nation's biggest hazardous-waste projects, concede they are unsure how many of the 1,220 cleanups have been screened for toxic gas.
"If anyone at EPA says they thought 10 years ago about doing this, they're not very believable," said John Frisco, who supervises EPA Superfund cleanups in New York and New Jersey. "Maybe it's a Pandora's box."
In the past, regulators found toxic gas in homes but refused to make the polluters spend $2,000 or so per house to clean it up.
Also, at least 13 states either never check or rarely check neighborhoods for toxic gas. They are Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.
"It's scary to see what's going on in other states," said Rob Elder, a hazardous-waste cleanup manager in Kansas, one of the few states that aggressively protects homeowners from vapor pollution.
National EPA managers defended their handling of the issue. They said EPA has been issuing advisories telling state regulators to check polluted neighborhoods for toxic gas, and noted that the agency will offer training seminars to state and federal regulators during a national hazardous waste conference on Jan. 17.
"I think Americans can sleep soundly at night knowing that EPA is concerned with this issue," said EPA Assistant Administrator Marianne Horinko, the agency's top national hazardous-waste regulator.
Fifty years after the great manufacturing boom of post-World War II America, taxpayers have grown accustomed to paying hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up Superfund sites and other toxic leaks. But now a new environmental bill is coming due. It's from the chemicals that stripped grease from the gears of the Industrial Revolution.
The manufacturing of metal parts relied on vast quantities of oil and gunk. To remove this grease from steel and aluminum – and to lift dirty spots from suits and dresses – engineers developed a series of chemicals called chlorinated solvents.
With an alphabet soup of names including TCE, PCE and DCE, these solvents were cheap, easily manufactured and popular.
At its peak in the 1970s, the industry used more than 2.4 billion pounds a year of just the three most popular solvents, TCE (metal degreaser), tetrachloroethylene (dry cleaning spot remover) and carbon tetrachloride (refrigerant component and degreaser). That was 10 pounds a year of solvents for every man, woman and child in America.
But all those chemicals did more than combat grease. They also made people sick.
Exposure to many of these solvents at high levels, or over a long period, hurts the liver, kidneys and nervous system, medical studies show. Many of these chemicals also are linked to cancer, especially of the liver and kidneys.
The government tried to protect workers with indoor air standards in factories. But the chemicals often didn't stay in factories.
The problem: All these solvents were dumped in thousands of places across the country.
Today they are the most common chemical pollutants in America, turning places such as Love Canal, N.Y., and Woburn, Mass., setting of the movie and best-selling book "A Civil Action," into front-page national news. Many states now have dozens, or even hundreds, of little-publicized streams of underground toxins.
The government allowed many of these plumes to remain unchecked beneath homes.
At the time, EPA instructed regulators that the main risks from solvent contamination came from drinking polluted groundwater or eating polluted dirt. EPA's rules presumed that low levels of pollution wouldn't contaminate homes with toxic gas.
EPA was wrong.
In three Denver neighborhoods, five years of tests found houses with unsafe levels of invisible and odorless gases from underground industrial plumes. More than 425 homes outside the Redfield rifle scope factory, Colorado Department of Transportation headquarters and Hamilton Sundstrand factory have been decontaminated.
Colorado now has cleaned more homes of vapors than any other state. That's not because Colorado is more polluted than anywhere else, officials said. It's because Colorado is one of the few states that regularly check for toxic indoor vapors.
"There's absolutely no reason for us to find vapor trouble in Colorado more than highly industrialized states," said Howard Roitman, chief hazardous waste regulator for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "The only reason we find it more is that we look for it. Other places don't test like we do."
In fact, only Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming regularly test polluted neighborhoods for toxic gas.
Many of the biggest states – especially heavily industrialized areas such as Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania – take the federal government's advice. They skip actual tests of air and instead use an EPA computer model to estimate whether it's safe to breathe inside a home.
Though EPA long has advocated direct testing of indoor air for another toxic gas, radon, the agency takes a different tack when checking homes for contamination by carcinogenic industrial solvents.
The agency's published advice on solvent gas pollution is: "EPA recommends that site managers use a screening level model developed by Johnson and Ettinger to evaluate exposure." Several state officials say they now run the model dozens of times a year without ever testing air inside homes to verify the model's accuracy.
But the model can be strikingly wrong.
At the nation's largest toxic gas cleanup site, in the southeast Denver neighborhood outside the former Redfield rifle scope factory, the EPA computer model predicted that fewer than three dozen homes would be beset with health-threatening levels of industrial solvent gas.
In fact, air tests inside homes proved that more than 300 homes required toxic gas decontamination. In some cases, actual pollution inside southeast Denver homes was 200 times worse than the government model predicted. Robbie Ettinger, one of two inventors of the EPA model, ran data from Redfield through his own computer at the request of The Post. He confirmed that the EPA formula underestimated home pollution there.
Nevertheless, EPA's Superfund program, which regulates most of the nation's worst toxic sites, continues to rely on the model to predict indoor air pollution. It's rare for the agency to take air samples in homes. Air tests usually cost $1,000 each.
"This indoor air issue is not a new thing," said David Lown, an engineer for the North Carolina state Superfund section. "EPA has brought it up. But EPA doesn't quite know what to do about it. I don't know what to do about it."
Not a new subject
EPA has known for decades that toxic gas could pose a threat in the home. The health risk from vapors was a main reason why then-President Jimmy Carter approved the emergency evacuation of 950 Love Canal families from 1978 to 1980.
A 1978 government report on Love Canal noted that liquid pollution was becoming gas inside basements and "resulting in hazards to health."
National fears over Love Canal led Congress to pass the Superfund law, one of the world's best-known pieces of environmental legislation.
But Love Canal's lesson about toxic vapors has since gone unheeded by EPA, which repeatedly has overlooked – or dismissed – the same threat at other polluted sites across the country.
A prime example is the BKK Landfill of West Covina, Calif., where 19 homes were evacuated in 1984 after public utility crews found explosive levels of methane gas in backyards.
While testing inside homes for methane vapors, regulators also detected vinyl chloride gas, a carcinogen, at concentrations 900 times worse than what the government says is safe. Vapors from four other industrial solvents were detected, some at levels up to 60 times worse than health standards. The BKK Landfill case was widely publicized, and scientists at the time warned that similar vapor threats could be found at other polluted sites across the country.
EPA didn't heed the warnings.
Though the agency did order BKK to decontaminate the landfill's edge, cleanup standards were so loose that residents were allowed in 1984 to reoccupy homes that still could have been polluted with unsafe levels of toxic industrial gas, records show.
Today contamination from the same BKK Landfill continues to seep 10 feet below dozens other homes in West Covina. But 17 years after the first evacuations, none of those homes has been tested for indoor air contamination.
In response to Denver Post questions, Kathy Baylor, an EPA hydrologist working on the BKK Landfill cleanup, said, "It's definitely something we'll look into. We're looking at what happened in Colorado, and it definitely gave us pause here."
Other states have tested for toxins, but disregarded findings that residents' health was at risk.
In the central Missouri town of Macon, Ralph Miller lived the past 30 years downhill from the Toastmaster appliance factory. After the company admitted that its plume of industrial chemicals, especially TCE, flowed toward Miller's property, his home was tested in May 1996 for unsafe vapors. At the time, Missouri regulators said their health standard for vapor exposure was 2.6 parts pr billion of TCE.
Miller's home tested at 26 parts per billion, 10 times the health standard.
So Missouri weakened its health standard tenfold.
That meant no cleanup of Miller's polluted home.
Rules different elsewhere
If Miller lived in many other states – Colorado, Massachusetts or California, for example – his two-bedroom, one-bathroom home would be detoxified.
Missouri officials voiced no regrets.
"It was borderline, so we didn't do it," said Nancy Priddy, who supervised the initial Toastmaster cleanup for the state Department of Natural Resources. "That's about all I can say about it."
That's little consolation to Miller.
"I don't feel OK. I woke up one day in January and my whole right side was paralyzed," said Miller, 75, a retired salesman. "I don't know why I'm paralyzed. The doctors can't tell me why I'm paralyzed. I haven't had a stroke or anything like that.
"The state came in here and told me my air is fine. I don't know what's going on. Do you think the air is why I'm paralyzed?"
Despite story lines in movies such as "Erin Brockovich," medical experts say it's difficult to blame any one person's health woes on home exposure to industrial chemicals. That's because cancer strikes so many people, and many of the afflicted smoke, maintain poor diets and receive heavy chemical doses at work.
Still, there is no dispute that industrial solvents have hurt and even killed people.
Scientific studies long have linked chlorinated industrial solvents to neurological damage, as well as liver, kidney and heart woes.
In the worst cases of on-the-job exposure to solvents – often when workers scrubbed the insides of industrial tanks for long periods with degreasers – victims suffered severe dizziness and vomiting before death.
No one at home faces such high concentrations of solvents. But the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say long-term exposure at lower levels of pollution also makes people sick.
Cancer looms large.
Vinyl chloride, a component of PVC pipes and breakdown product for several other chemicals, is a known human carcinogen. And the federal government says other solvents, such as tetrachloroethylene dry-cleaning fluid, or PCE, are probable human carcinogens.
The cancers most often associated with solvent exposure are leukemias, especially for children, and cancers of the brain, bladder, colorectal system, lymph nodes, liver, pancreas and stomach, the CDC reports.
The CDC began regular health checks in 1988 on 4,900 people in 15 neighborhoods in Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania where home drinking water supplies were contaminated by TCE. Many of those people also breathed TCE seeping through their home foundations and vaporizing from contaminated water as they showered and washed dishes. Children under 9 suffered speech impairment, deafness, anemia and urinary tract disorders at rates significantly exceedin the national average, the CDC found.
Adults suffered from anemia, diabetes, deafness, hypertension, kidney disease, liver problems, skin rashes, speech impairment, strokes and urinary disorders at rates significantly exceeding the national average. Immune system disorders, such as lupus, have been linked to solvents.
One of those in the CDC study is Bob Gillette.
In Rockford, Ill., the Rust Belt town that once called itself the Screw Capital of the World, Gillette and his mother, Mary Faith Gillette, lived for 32 years across the street from a metal parts manufacturer. The factory, Swebco Manufacturing, turned out to be one of 17 sources of industrial solvent plumes that polluted home water supplies and led 10 square miles of the city to be classified as a Superfund cleanup site, officials said.
In 1992, at age 44, Gillette blacked out and was rushed to a hospital, where doctors found an egg-sized tumor in the right frontal lobe of his brain. He has inoperable brain cancer.
"I've got a very rare type of tumor, and the doctors at the Mayo Clinic told me they think it had to do with odors from factories," said Gillette, a former Swebco worker who said his company made parts for Denver-based Gates Rubber Co. "I've got a 30 percent chance of surviving 10 years."
His mother, a non-drinking hospital worker, died in 1996, at age 68, of liver cancer, a malady that has been linked to solvent exposure.
Illinois state regulators tested Gillette's southeast Rockford neighborhood and found five types of toxic gas in several homes. In one house, levels of one gas were 75 times worse than EPA health guidelines.
EPA let Illinois state government direct the environmental reviews. State regulators ordered no home gas cleanups. They said the national health guidelines, designed to protect invalids and newborns who spend much time at home, are too stringent.
"We assumed one-third of your time is spent in a rec room. How many people spend one-third of their time in a rec room? I doubt very many," said Mike Moomey of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
After Denver Post inquiries, however, Illinois state officials said they will consult with federal EPA regulators about the best way to check for toxic vapor inside Rockford homes.
Post questions also led EPA to call for toxic gas checks in Roscoe, Ill., where Patricia Brice and her twin daughters suffered a string of health woes after the town's largest employer, Warner Electric Brake and Clutch Co., leaked a 1,200-foot wide stream of an industrial chemical into their rural subdivision.
"They told us not to drink the water, that it was suitable for washing and bathing, but not for cooking or ingesting," Brice said.
It was bad advice.
Toxic gas exposure from washing and bathing actually can exceed exposure from drinking polluted water.
Though the pollution beneath her neighborhood was severe – the plume contained TCE, TCA and DCE at levels up to 400 times worse than drinking water standards – regulators never ordered the polluter to test anyone's home air for leaking toxic gases.
In 1985 and 1986, Brice's 12-year-old daughters suddenly were stricken with a series of non-epileptic grand mal seizures.
Then in 1992, at age 42, Brice was stricken with lupus, an immune-system disorder that attacks body joints and internal organs. The 5-foot-7 Brice plunged from 135 pounds to 92 pounds in just six months. She was stricken with major skin rashes, painful fingernail cracks and a severe case of thrush, an inflammation of the esophagus that made it nearly impossible to eat solid food.
Then she got hepatitis.
Brice was admitted to the hospital, where she developed tuberculosis. She required open-heart surgery to combat a severe case of pericarditis, a painful infection of the heart cavity.
Doctors prescribed chemotherapy. She lived six months in the hospital.
"I was a single mom," said Brice, an admissions worker at a local junior college. "I lost the ability to walk. I couldn't work. I was throwing up. I was catheterized. I had the children at home, and we had to go on food stamps.
"With the girls, we went to the Mayo Clinic. I wanted to know why this happened. I wanted to know why for myself, too. The doctors never would tell me what caused all this. But they would not say, "No, it's not the pollution.'
"I think it's the pollution. We've had such sickness. I think it's the pollution."
Like the Gillette family, the Brices are part of the CDC study that found some sicknesses at double and even triple the national rates in their neighborhoods.
Still, regulators allowed the vast majority of pollution to remain beneath the homes of Brice and her neighbors.
In response to questions from The Denver Post, Chris Black of the Chicago regional EPA office said regulators shouldn't ignore the risks of toxic gas around the Brice home.
"We should assess it," Black said.
Mark Obmascik can be reached at Mobmascik@denverpost.com or 303-820-1415.
FAIR USE NOTICE