Chemical Solvent’s Risks Drive Small Firms to Innovate

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By Sylvia Carignan

New concerns about the potential health effects of a common chemical solvent are spurring monitoring innovations—and in the process letting small environmental consulting firms compete with industry giants.

States are testing thousands of sites to determine whether the solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, is affecting people as the chemical migrates from contaminated soil or water into buildings’ indoor air. The chemical solvent has long been considered carcinogenic, but is now associated with concerns that short-term exposure could affect pregnant women and the development of their babies.

To track and evaluate those risks, environmental consultants—particularly smaller firms—are turning to continuous air quality monitoring systems that are capable of spotting short term spikes in exposure to the chemical.

“There are a lot of smaller groups that want a piece of that pie,” Mark Kram from the small California-based firm Groundswell Technologies told Bloomberg BNA.

The new monitoring push creates an opportunity for small businesses like Groundswell Technologies and Entanglement Technologies to go toe-to-toe with large firms like Geosyntec Consultants, AECOM, Tetra Tech, and CH2M for assessment contracts.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently added vapor intrusion to the list of ways a site could land on the Superfund National Priorities List. The agency issued guidance on vapor intrusion assessment methods in 2015, but some feel the guidance leaves out essential information on the consequences of short-term chemical exposure.

At some sites, Kram said, concentrations of TCE in indoor air have been high enough to present a danger to public health. “We’ve had situations where the buildings are evacuated,” he said.

‘Thousands’ of Sites Possibly Contaminated

Vapor intrusion concerns often crop up at Superfund or brownfields sites. Environmental firms like Groundswell Technologies, Geosyntec or CH2M are called in to assess the potential for indoor air or soil contamination.

John Lowe, a principal technologist for CH2M, said the threat of exposure to TCE though vapor intrusion could be extensive. The chemical has been used for decades as a machine degreaser and aircraft parts cleaner.

“The scale of the potential problem—we are talking about thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of sites across the United States,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

Vapor intrusion can occur when volatile chemicals migrate up from a groundwater plume. The chemicals contaminate soil and indoor air above the plume.

Short-Term Exposures a Concern

Continuous monitoring has created a niche for smaller businesses and those seeking subcontractors on federal contracts.

Entanglement Technologies, headed by Chief Executive Officer Tony Miller, is developing a continuous monitoring device that would focus on small amounts of TCE at sites with the potential for vapor intrusion. Miller told Bloomberg BNA the need for this kind of device arose because existing technologies couldn’t detect as wide a range of TCE concentrations, and canisters and sorbent readings take hours or days to return from the laboratory—too long to detect brief spikes of TCE.

Dominant companies in the industry said continuous monitoring is merely one tool in the vapor intrusion assessment toolbox, not the only solution.

“In order to really assess what’s happening, you really have to have multiple lines of assessment open to you,” Hester Groenevelt, an environmental chemist at Geosyntec, told Bloomberg BNA.

Filling the Regulatory Gaps

In a statement, an EPA spokesperson told Bloomberg BNA that it recommends “time-integrated continuous sampling technologies, such as canisters and sorbent samplers, and the collection of multiple samples over time to account for variability.”

At the same time, Kram said, the EPA has been open to using continuous monitoring at Superfund sites with potential TCE contamination.

“EPA is now hiring us for various projects because they recognize that there’s this potential risk,” Kram said. On May 22, EPA added the vapor intrusion pathway as one of the criteria for adding waste sites to its Superfund program list ( RIN:2050-AG67).

Blayne Hartman, a geochemist, works as an independent contractor under his own small firm, Hartman Environmental Geoscience. He said his firm also has worked with the EPA to continuously measure TCE at a New Hampshire Superfund site, taking thousands of readings to monitor vapor intrusion.

Lowe said adaptations may come with time as states start to set their own guidance. State standards currently vary, and the EPA has not set an agency-wide short term exposure limit for TCE.

“[Continuous monitoring] is an emerging method, and the regulations haven’t really caught up to it,” Lowe said.

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