Case Study: The Vapor Intrusion That Wasn’t There

Posted by Mark Roman on September 5, 2018

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Vapor intrusion is a “hot topic” across the country these days when it comes to environmental, health and safety. There are definitely times when indoor air quality is severely affected by this issue.

But, we’ve also found instances where it’s all too easy to just declare there is vapor intrusion causing an indoor air issue and then initiate costly mitigation… when there may be another cause if you dig deeper.

A while back, I highlighted just such a case involving a warehouse that contained plastic hotel supplies. Now, I’d like to share another similar situation where a company was being pressured into taking drastic action over a vapor intrusion issue that turned out to be non-existent.

It’s a great example of where you can’t take test results at face value, and it’s important to do a little more investigation before embarking on an expensive remediation effort.

Avoiding a Major Impact on Our Client’s Business

Our client had purchased a facility that had known contamination – chlorinated volatile organics to be specific. These contaminants – known carcinogens – were in the soil and groundwater from historical releases.

The former owner was responsible for investigation and remediation of the site. And as part of this process, state regulators required assessments to determine if vapor from the soil or groundwater contamination was offgassing and entering the building onsite through floor cracks, floor seams, etc.

As part of the vapor intrusion assessment, the former owner sampled the indoor air and the results did indicate the presence of chlorinated volatile organics in the air inside the facility. Some of the samples from a specific location tested particularly high.

We knew it didn’t make sense.

Our clients, who were in the cosmetics industry, had put in new flooring in the facility; well-constructed, well-sealed. Working in their industry, they must have a clean facility to maintain trust with their customers. A finding of this type of contamination would negatively impact those business relationships in a big way.

Not to mention the former owners would have had to dig up that brand-new, expensive floor and install a vapor mitigation system in the building, consisting of a network of trenches and pipes sticking up out of the floor inside the building.

In a nutshell, in order to install a vapor intrusion mitigation system, our client would need to shut down their operations and move equipment so that the former owners could have access to install the system. It would have been a severe disruption that would force them to not meet client demand and possibly result in the loss of business.

Not something we wanted for our client.

So, we decided to dig a little deeper.

Our Detective Work Pays Off

We conducted a detailed inspection of the floor conditions within the facility and did not observe any breaches of integrity that could act as potential pathways for the contaminated vapor to enter the facility. In fact, the floor was in extremely good condition. As a result, we kept looking.

We tried to build facility knowledge by interviewing the maintenance folks and asking them if they used chlorinated volatile organics in any of their work. The answer:

“No. About five years ago a memo came down from corporate to eliminate them because we don’t want to be tied into the onsite contamination issue that the former owner is addressing.”

Okay, scratch that off the list… maybe.

Then we looked at the facility’s Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for the materials that the facility uses onsite. There were a number of SDS for aerosol can products that are used to loosen nuts and bolts, and for degreasing purposes – these aerosol cans contained chlorinated volatile organics, some of which are very efficient degreasers.

But… another dead end. Facility personnel told us those SDS were old ones and they hadn’t used those products for years. A look at their purchasing history confirmed it.

Then, we drilled even deeper and looked at the tool carts the individual maintenance folks would take around the facility with their tools and materials.

Guess what we found?

Those aerosol cans that contained chlorinated volatile organics that the facility formerly used, and were now no longer allowed, were so good at degreasing and made performing equipment maintenance so much easier, that some of the maintenance folks were buying their own aerosol cans at a local hardware store for use onsite, despite the corporate edict. No one at the facility knew about this practice, other than the maintenance crew themselves. These cans would be stored and used on the noted tool carts.

We then took a closer look at the indoor air sampling locations in relation to where maintenance activities occurred at the facility. What we found is that the sampling locations that reported the highest concentrations of chlorinated volatile organics in indoor air were located in the same areas where these maintenance tool carts were staged – the same tool carts where the cans of degreasing material that contained chlorinated volatile organics were found.

(These sorts of Invisible Environmental Gorillas can impact your facility in all sorts of ways you’d never expect. Get a handy checklist to find the most common here.)

Once we identified the culprit we sat down with the maintenance crew and explained the situation. They stopped using the aerosol cans and properly removed them from the facility.

Then we retested indoor air and it showed no sign of vapor intrusion from chlorinated volatile organics in the building. Of course, no need to tear up those nice new floors.

When Vapor Intrusion… Isn’t Vapor Intrusion

Vapor intrusion is on everybody’s mind these days. But never rush to judgment and initiate remediation based solely on sampling results. Indoor air can be affected by many things, not just vapor intrusion. When it comes to evaluating vapor intrusion, we conduct assessments that evaluate “multiple lines of evidence” to determine if vapor intrusion is indeed an issue affecting indoor air.

If you’re worried about potential – or suspect – vapor intrusion, call Envision Environmental, Inc. now at (609) 208-1885 or email markroman@envisionenvironmental.com to schedule a phone consultation.

We can take a closer look at your specific case to see how we can help.

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