The next time you pick up your dry cleaning, you might want to consider what you have unwittingly encouraged. Perchloroethylene, a mainstay chemical used in all dry cleaning, is one of the primary poisons seeping into our soil, and from there, into our homes, where it can cause illness, birth defects, and death.

In October, 2005, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued a guidance document on these toxins and other intrusive vapors. The solutions and problems created by this document are among the hot topics in the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education’s Environmental Forum on Friday, June 23, at 7:30 a.m. through Sunday, June 25, at the Golden Inn Hotel and Restaurant in Avalon. Cost $219. Visit www.NJICLE.com

Attorney and chemical engineer Frank Boenning speaks on technical and legal aspects of vapor intrusions at 8:30 a.m. on June 24. A native of Point Pleasant Beach, he attended Stevens Institute, graduating in l988 with a degree in chemical engineering and an environmental specialty. He then took these talents to the historic town of Loredo, Texas, where he joined Anzon, a mining company, working as an environmental consultant.

“Anyone who works with the environment,” says Boenning, “sooner or later ends up rubbing up against law and government a lot of the time.” So, shaking the dust of the mines, he entered the School of Law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. Since l998 Boenning has worked as an environmental specialist for the law firm of Lowenstein Sandler in Roseland.

The DEP’s intrusive vapors guidance document may sound like an advisory proposal, but it bears the full weight of law. Its goal is to define buildings that may contain lethal vapors — and ensure their remediation. While the eradication is relatively simple, the discovery of these hazardous pollutants has proved hard and costly — and has met with significant protests.

What lies below. As far back as the ancient Roman poet Ovid people have feared invisible diseases borne on foul air. The illness, although not recognized, was malaria, was carried by swamp-bred mosquitoes. Ovid’s suggestion for a cure was to enter the victim’s room singing joyous tunes and waving large fans to sweep away the pollution.

A surprisingly similar solution was employed two millennia later to rid American structures of the invisible radon gas that seeped through foundation cracks. The gas would be simply be blown outside and away by electric fans (tunes optional).

Radon was a naturally occurring substance that stayed put. A high radon site could be surveyed and known. However, the new list of lethal intrusive vapors have sprung from man-made sources and it is difficult to determine where they may seep through the earth.

The three biggest intrusive vapor villains are perchloroethylene, used in dry cleaning; trichloroethylene, used in degreasing solutions; and gasoline derivatives such as benzene. These chemicals collect in the soil and naturally transform into gases. If a structure has basement cracks and poor ventilation, these gases can intrude into the structure, and slowly but surely cause a variety of illnesses.

Hunting the villains. The DEP’s intrusive vapors guidance document requires that when one of the above volatile chemicals is suspected to lie within 100 feet of a structure, the responsible party must pay for tests and analysis. This entails core sampling the area’s soil, the layer of soil gas below the building, and even the air within the building itself. “For a 5,000 square-foot shop, this process can run into the tens of thousands of dollars,” says Boenning.

With this kind of potential expense, who precisely is the responsible party? “This is the point where people begin to roll up their shirtsleeves and get ready for a fight,” says Boenning. Technically, the company that discharged the volatile organic chemical into the ground is liable. However, the new purchaser of a plant where the discharge once occurred may also be held responsible. This totally over rides the “innocent party” status awarded to unknowing buyers in most brownfield legislation.

Fanning the gas. Once the presence of a hazardous intrusive vapor is determined the solution is technically simple and relatively low cost. Trenches are jackhammered in the basement or slab floor and slotted pipe is laid about one foot below the concrete. Solid pipes are connected to the slotted ones and are laid to the nearest window. The gas seeps into the slotted pipe and is drawn away by a small fan. The slotted pipes are re-covered and all cracks are patched.

Increasingly, builders are installing such systems along with basic vapor barriers as they pour basements. As part of the original building, it provides an inexpensive and attractive protection, desired by both residential and commercial buyers.

An analysis too far? Even during its short tenure, the DEP’s guidance document has caused a furor. Many state that the required parts-per-billion screening levels of these volatile chemicals are unrealistic.

“If you have slight background traces of these chemicals, such as a lawn mower in your garage, or a fresh load of dry cleaning in the closet, you may be above the DEP limits,” says Boenning. In addition, the laboratory technicians have complained that the amounts of these gasses they must search out are too minuscule to measure.

Before this current document, Boenning always felt that he could take individual cases to the DEP and work out a solution. But with the new law, no one is sure how much slack may and should be cut. No one denies that these gases in some amount are lethal, and worth any price to eradicate from our dwellings. But how low must we go?

It has been said that the worst terrorism we Americans face is the slow poisoning of our earth and our air. Certainly more people have suffered from this fouling than all military terrorist attacks in our nation. But the good news is that ours is the polluting hand and ours is the will that can end it.

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