How worried should someone be about TCE in their housing complex?
March 19, 2013 9:27 PM   Subscribe

[Asking for a friend] I'm a renter on the second floor of an industrial loft conversion condominium. There are notices up from the state [Massachusetts] EPA about "imminent hazard" levels of TCE (a chemical solvent) for "women of childbearing age" (I am one) in the first floor (partially belowground) apartments. How concerned should I be? Details inside!

There are interrelated issues stressing me out here:

1. Sleuthing around the public records I can access online reveals that this has been a known issue since at least 2008; in fact, the HOA is currently in active litigation against the builder, presumably over who is going to pay the millions of dollars to actually remediate the contaminated soil under the building. Right now the stopgap measure seems to be putting in a new air filtration system. I moved in here in 2011; neither the lawsuit nor the environmental concern was disclosed to me when I signed my first lease or when I re-signed in 2012. I'm wondering if the realtor or owner had an obligation to disclose this? I found out about the lawsuit by looking up the condos for sale in the building on Trulia; the lawsuit disclosure wasn't up on the listings in 2011.

2. Going along with that there is still no official word from my landlord, the HOA, or anyone else about this matter; there is just the EPA notice up on the communal bulletin board, mixed in with all the business cards and community event announcements that everyone ignores. The sign says that they're putting air filters in the affected units, all of which, as I said, are partially underground. Is that enough? They did do air quality testing all in and around the building last summer, so presumably my floor was ok. Should I be concerned about any longterm effects from living here anyway?

I've asked the realtor who rented me the apartment and the one HOA boardmember I know about this, and they've both said I'm fine because I'm on the second floor with a unit below me, that it's not in our water, and that the HOA has fulfilled all of its legal obligations in this matter. As a tenant with an out-of-state/absentee landlord, I feel totally disempowered here in getting any real sense about how serious this matter is.

I've been here for two years and was only planning to live here for 1-2 more years maximum. Should I be thinking about bailing before then? My current lease ends in July but I'm supposed to sign (or not) by the end of next month.
posted by lesbiassparrow to Health & Fitness (4 answers total)
Your friend should call the state EPA to find out more about specific risks and what steps have been taken so far to remediate the building. (If there's a contact listed on that sign, start there.)

I'm sure somebody else knows lots about what dangers TCE poses, but for info about that building it looks like the state EPA may be the best source since the HOA's not being especially forthcoming about the process. Good luck.
posted by asperity at 10:10 PM on March 19, 2013

I am an environmental consultant; I am not your environmental consultant.

The folks overseeing the cleanup are the state regulators, the MA Department of Environmental Protection (MA DEP). "Imminent hazard" is one of the standards for when you need to clean up a site. The fact that the levels in soil are considered an "imminent hazard" means they're high. That may or may not mean that the levels in indoor air are high.

Generally speaking, it's more common for first-floor/basement/partially-subgrade units to have issues with vapor intrusion (basically, contamination in the soil comes through the slab into indoor air; since they're right on that slab, the lowest units get the brunt of it). However, it is not a rule, and in very bad situations it is possible for vapor intrusion impacts to be present, albeit at lower levels, on higher floors.

The thing about women of childbearing age is interesting -- I'd heard they were planning on lowering the chlorinated solvent exposure standards for pregnant women, but hadn't heard any examples of this yet. This is more of a consideration if you are actually planning on getting pregnant, FWIW.

For most states, I'd recommend calling the state agency and asking to speak to the case manager. But MA is special; we have a very different system where private Licensed Site Professionals (LSPs) oversee the actual cleanup, and the state audits their closures after the cleanup is complete. So while you definitely can try asking the regulators, I'm not sure if you'd have as much luck finding someone familiar with the site (as you can in most other states).

You should be able to get the reports, however. The sign with "imminent hazard" should have an RTN (Release Tracking Number) and you can use that to look up any reports they've uploaded to the MA DEP online system here. Hopefully they will have already uploaded the report from the air sampling, which will give you a source of the actual indoor air levels on your floor. (Note: Once you have the reports, you could try calling the MA DEP to ask if someone can go through them with you, or explain them. You just aren't as likely to find someone who's already super-familiar with this release.)

From what you describe, it sounds like they have chlorinated solvents in the soil they built on, and they didn't put down a vapor barrier (or did it badly). Whether the air system will work depends on what they're actually doing. It should be a sub-slab depressurization system (or similar) but it sounds more like little HEPA filters from your description -- is that correct?

If you're worried about your water, you can confirm with the town (or local water utility) that the building is on municipal water. It's very rare for a newer development in MA to be on a well, so I'd be very surprised. As long as the water is from the municipal lines, you should be good.

Also, in the event this place has any exterior areas, I wouldn't let any small children play in the dirt outside your apartment, or plant any gardens in the soil.
posted by pie ninja at 4:32 AM on March 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

Pieninja has hit the most salient points. The link to the documents above is great.

TCE is something of a special case, and the "safe" levels were lowered in 2011, with some of the regulatory decisions around that still being worked out because the national EPA hasn't provided guidance on what to do in the short term for pregnant women. Here are a few things that may comfort your friend in the short term:

- Imminent Hazard simply means that action Must be taken to reduce or eliminate exposures. That's why the air filters in the affected units, which usually do a very good job. If they did test the air recently, they know which units are affected, and she should be able to find out more in the online reports.
- It's true that the lower units are likely the affected units, because the vapors usually come up through the foundation (as long as it's not in the tapwater, which is unlikely in urban areas).
- TCE is of greatest short-term concern when actually pregnant. If your friend isn't actually pregnant, then she doesn't need to be concerned about the fetal heart malformations that the "women of childbearing age" numbers are based on. Because people don't always know when they're pregnant, the numbers are stated for "women of childbearing age".
- TCE is processed out of the system in urine and breath pretty quickly. Unlike chemicals (PCBs) that build up over time, most TCE will be processed out within days or weeks, so long term affects aren't a concern as long as the exposure is being stopped through measures like air filters.
posted by ldthomps at 7:32 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, note that the first rule of risk assessment is that in order for there to be risk, the person has to be exposed. If your friend doesn't have elevated TCE in her indoor air, then her risk should not be elevated either. So if she can look up the levels in her unit and the second floor, that should help her see if there's any risk.
posted by ldthomps at 8:09 AM on March 20, 2013

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