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Written By: Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CSP, CSP, President
March 9, 2020
Vapor Intrusion – Health Hazards from Below
What Exactly is Vapor Intrusion?
Vapor intrusion is the condition where contamination in soil or groundwater rises to the surface and penetrates into the building above. The source of the vapor intrusion can be as varied as the chemicals themselves.
Soil Contamination Beneath Your Building
Soil contamination could be from a former chemical manufacturer on the site where buildings were torn down and new structures built on the site. Another possibility is the neighbor businesses such as dry cleaners or dry cleaners next door dumped, leaked or spilled into the soil for years and now they pose a health risk to current residents. Understand that concrete basements, floors, and foundations are actually quite porous and the chemicals in the soils can be pushed into the occupied parts of the building due to increase in soil temperature, rise in the water table, pushed laterally from nearby contamination, or just migrate upward due to vapor pressure—through the porous concrete, sump pump wells, or cracks in the foundation. We already have had some experience with a “Vapor” entering into our buildings—RADON! Radon is a gas and one of the final degradation stages of radioactive uranium. Its source is uranium-containing veins in the rock upon which our buildings are built.
This can occur even if there are no signs of vapor intrusion such as odors, stains, or “sheen on the water.” Many chemicals that can seep into a building are toxic even at levels below what can be smelled—called “odor threshold.”
Often it takes an illness or a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) to recognize that the building was built on a former landfill, or there was a pesticide manufacturer who operated nearby for 25 years and there is a record of soil contamination and chemical migration. A Phase I ESA is the search of available records (local, county, state and federal) for information on contamination on the subject property or surrounding properties.
Conducting Research Into The Cause
Research into nearby sources or past activities nearby can give some insight into the possibility of conditions for vapor intrusion. Chemicals that can migrate into a building in vapor form are generally confined to solvent type chemicals that evaporate.
This can generally include what is defined as, “volatile chemicals or semi-volatile chemicals” because of their ability to evaporate where they come in contact with the air. There are others such as pesticides—especially water-soluble ones—that can break down over time and those decomposition products can be volatile. There are other things that can contaminate soils but generally do not create vapor but can result in adverse health effects such as lead or other heavy metals such as cadmium, cobalt, manganese, and mercury. Those contaminants will be discussed in later articles.
Vapor Intrusion Testing/Sampling
Selecting the proper test sites are complex, as is the number of test sites to get a true picture of the extent of the vapor intrusion.
The actual vapor intrusion testing method is now reasonably simple. 1) Drill through the foundation into suspected soils. 2) Obtain evacuated cylinders. 3) Seal the opening around the sampling line. 4) Slowly draw air into the vacuum cylinder—usually 24-hour sample. 5) Send a sampled cylinder to a qualified laboratory with instructions for analysis (TO-15, volatiles, semi-volatiles). 6) Match results to EPA or other reference thresholds.
Chemicals Causing Health Problems
Some of the more common chemicals that may be found in soils that are known to cause health problems include:
- Formaldehyde – from insulation, adhesives, preservatives, chemical production, hair care products.
- Perchloroethylene – dry cleaning chemical.
- Trichloroethylene (TCE) – a degreaser, solvent.
- Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA) – a paint ingredient, cleaner, disinfectant.
- Gasoline – vehicles and leaking fuel tanks.
- 2 Fuel Oil – heating oil – spills and leaching tanks.
- Toluene and Xylene – paints, solvents, varnishes, degreasers.
Interpretation of vapor intrusion test results can be a complex process requiring input from geologists, industrial hygienists, and building engineers. If individuals have illnesses that are suspected of coming from vapor intrusion then physicians, allergists, toxicologists, and epidemiologists may also need to participate.
Investigate and Identify
Atlantic Environmental has the experience to investigate possible situations where Vapor Intrusion – Health Hazards may be present. We also have the ability to identify test sites and perform the testing that will confirm—or deny—the presence of harmful chemicals as a result of vapor intrusion.
- The third reference regarding Vapor Intrusion. Read the Reference Guide: “Guidance for Evaluating Soil Vapor Intrusion in the State of New York,” health.ny.gov/environmental/investigations/soil_gas/svi_guidance/
- Vapor Intrusion by State http://vaporintrusion.blogspot.com/
For more information related to Vapor Intrusion – Health Hazards contact Atlantic Environmental.
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