More Contaminant Found: Low Level of TCE Detected at Dartmouth College Housing

Saturday, March 30, 2013
Hanover — A chemical compound known to cause cancer has been detected in a vacant home owned by Dartmouth College adjacent to the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory.

Dartmouth College conducted its own test on three residences near the lab in the Fletcher-Cedar neighborhood after elevated levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, were found on the boundary of the CRREL campus earlier this year.

Results from one of the houses came back on Thursday night and showed the presence of air-borne TCE in amounts close to or exceeding the “regulatory screening levels,” college spokesman Justin Anderson said yesterday.

Dartmouth notified residents in 32 college-owned units of the findings yesterday afternoon via email and hand-delivered letters. Anderson stressed that the college doesn’t think there is any immediate health danger to residents.

“We are taking this seriously and we are acting out of an abundance of caution because we want to make sure that our residents are taken care of and their concerns are addressed,” Anderson said.

The college is still waiting for the results for the other two houses, he said.

TCE was used at CRREL from 1960 to 1987 as a refrigerant. Exposure to the chemical can damage the central nervous system and immune system and can even cause cancer.

A screening level is a stricter standard than what would trigger a clean-up. A screening level is meant to protect the most vulnerable individuals, including a fetus in utero, Anderson said.

For example, a screening level for TCE is 0.4 parts per billion, or ppb, while a level five times higher, 2 parts per billion, is needed before it’s considered a serious health risk, Anderson said. What was found in the Fletcher-Cedar house was closer to the screening level.

The testing done at the Fletcher-Cedar residence was similar to the testing that was done at Richmond Middle School last week. Earlier this week, administrators at the middle school sent home a note to parents explaining that a preliminary test conducted by a private company showed TCE present in the principal’s office.

The level was so low that it is unclear if the chemical migrated from CRREL or some other source. (In addition to refrigeration, TCE also has been used in dry cleaning and as an industrial degreaser.)

The Army Corps of Engineers will conduct its own tests in the coming months at several locations, including the middle school, the Fletcher-Cedar residences, Dartmouth Printing Co., investment advisors Brendel and Fisher, Hanover Family Chiropractic and Hanover Yoga and the Rivercrest property north of CRREL.

Longstanding Contamination

Officials at CRREL have known there was TCE contamination in the soil and ground water underneath the lab for decades.

In 2010, however, investigators detected TCE vapor inside several buildings on the CRREL campus. Since that discovery, an effort has been made to monitor for TCE vapor throughout the campus. The Department of Defense came out with vapor intrusion guidance.

“Nobody was thinking vapors at the time,” said Lawrence Cain, risk assessor with the Army Corp of Engineers New England district. “It just wasn’t what you did. You looked at ground water, soil, sediments, that kind of thing. They knew they had a groundwater problem, and now on top of that is the vapor problem.”

Dartmouth College plans to hire a contractor to design and install sub-slab depressurization systems at its Fletcher-Cedar housing — similar to what are used at CRREL — that are supposed to be an effective means of keeping TCE from building up indoors.

Dartmouth has also offered temporary relocation for residents upon request. There will also be several information sessions, Anderson said.

The Valley News knocked on the doors of more than a dozen Fletcher-Cedar residences yesterday afternoon before the email was sent out notifying them of the testing results.

One person who declined to give his full name — a resident in one of the houses that was tested in the Fletcher-Cedar neighborhood — said he felt assured that the tests were an “over-precaution.”

He said he felt that the fact that CRREL hosts a day care center on site shows that there’s no reason to worry; if there were harmful levels of chemicals, he surmised, the day care would not be allowed.

“I’m not concerned,” he said.

Residents in two other houses also declined to comment.

Another person who declined to be identified — a resident in the Fletcher-Cedar neighborhood whose house is close to the three that were tested — also expressed confidence that everything was being handled properly, and had so far decided against requesting a test on her property.

“It’s nice that they’re on top of it. ... Maybe ignorance is bliss ... but we’re going to trust them, naïvely perhaps,” the person said. She felt Dartmouth is run by intelligent people who want healthy employees, she added.

‘They Aren’t Scary High Levels’

About three years ago, several offices throughout the CRREL campus were tested for TCE vapor contamination, and a number of samples came back positive.

A TCE storage tank was once located underground on the northeast side of the CRREL campus, and the highest levels of vapor were found in the basement levels closest to where the storage tank had been, Cain said in an interview earlier this week.

Mitigation efforts, including portable air purifiers and sub-slab depressurization systems that help contain the contamination, have been made, said Darrell Moore, a project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers New England district.

There are still areas in the basement area of the labs where no offices are allowed, and it should stay that way, Cain said.

“When we say high levels, they aren’t scary high levels, but they’re higher levels than we’d be comfortable to have somebody work,” Moore said in an interview at Richmond Middle School earlier this week.

Eventually, the testing led Moore and his colleagues to the property boundary of CRREL. When testing at the boundary began a year ago, TCE traces were not detected in shallow samples at 25 feet, but as Moore and his team drilled deeper, they found elevated levels of TCE in the soil vapor 50 to 75 feet below the ground.

The discovery has led members of the Army Corps of Engineers to expand their testing off the CRREL campus to neighboring buildings . CRREL’s location on Route 10 in Hanover is across the street from Richmond Middle School. The campus is surrounded by office buildings and housing for Dartmouth College staff and is just down the road from Kendal at Hanover, a retirement community.

Now, Army Corps of Engineers will be conducting its own multi-part tests.

After students and teachers had left Richmond Middle School last Tuesday, members of the Army Corps of Engineers peeled back pieces of the carpet and drilled holes through the cement to insert 12-inch tubes, which are about a half inch in diameter, into the ground. Those tubes will allow investigators to test for TCE in air pockets, or vapor, in the soil.

At the same time, the ambient air will be tested for TCE. The soil and air testing are done simultaneously because the vapor travels through the soil and then enters buildings. If the chemical compound is found in the air, but not in the soil, then the TCE may be from another source.

Moore and his colleagues also will drill outside the school and look for pathways that the TCE vapor might have traveled. The first drilling outside the school will take place during the third week of April, Moore said.

Testing will likely continue for months because Moore said it’s essential to conduct various rounds of sampling. Eight rounds of vapor sampling were conducted on the CRREL campus during the last three years, Moore said.

Superintendent Frank Bass said he’s going to give Moore as much freedom as he needs to test in and around the middle school because he doesn’t want Moore to miss anything.

“God forbid we miss a spot and it happens to be a spot that the chemical made its way too. We just can’t take that chance,” Bass said.

An open house to address TCE contamination will be held at the Richmond Middle School gym at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The evening will be set up like a science fair, with eight different booths where community members can learn about how vapor moves through soil, the health risks of TCE, the history of the chemical compound at CRREL, among other things.

Parents Take News in Stride

Outside the school yesterday afternoon, parents waiting to pick up their children expressed reactions ranging from concern about the tests’ potential findings to calm confidence that there was no need to worry.

When parent Christine Abbatiello first read the memo sent home with her two children who are students at the school, “my reaction was pretty guarded because I really didn’t know that much about it,” she said. But after researching TCE online and learning more about the steps that CRREL and the school are taking, “I felt better about it,” she said, because there “didn’t seem to be any kind of threat.”

She and her husband plan on attending the open house “just to get the lay of the land.”

“Obviously the proximity (between CRREL and the middle school) is pretty close ... so we want to make sure they’re staying on top of it, which we’re assured they will,” she said.

It was still at the front of parent Erin Roy’s mind, who said she found the situation to be “very concerning” until further testing is completed, and said she hoped the school isn’t “minimizing” the problem.

“My trust is in the leadership here,” she said. “I hope and pray that if they felt it was that lethal an amount that they would not allow kids to go to school here.”

She’s eager for more information, particularly whether parents should be keeping an eye out for any symptoms of long-term TCE exposure.

Parent Joachim Ankerhold, a visiting professor at Dartmouth College this semester whose son is enrolled at the middle school, said it was an interesting experience to watch the school deal with the situation. So far, he said, it seemed that officials had responded appropriately.

“Of course, transparency is the best thing you can do,” said Ankerhold, who is visiting from Germany.

Extent of Contamination Unknown

This is the first time that investigators have thought that TCE vapor might have seeped from CRREL, but it is not the first time that CRREL has worried about contamination on its property.

The chemical compound was used as a refrigerant for the cooling system of CRREL’s main laboratory from 1960 to 1987.

In May 1970, a blown gasket caused the refrigeration system to be shut down. About 6,000 gallons of TCE were siphoned into a storage tank, but many gallons went through the floor drains, which connected to the sewer system.

Two months later, an explosion to the tank caused about 3,000 gallons to drain into the parking lot and was later washed into the storm sewer by the fire department.

Throughout the years, TCE also leaked on the floors, but because TCE wasn’t considered hazardous at the time, no documentation of leaks were kept, according to records found in CRREL’s administrative report at the Kilton Library.

“Unfortunately, it is impossible to estimate how much TCE was lost during the years it was used at CRREL,” the report reads.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223. Valley News staff writer Maggie Cassidy contributed to this report.