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PlanetWavesActivists spar with state health officials over safety of contaminated dorm

By Eric F. Coppolino | Return to Main Page
Huguenot and Highland Herald, Dec. 10, 1992

On Dec. 30, 1991, the day after an electrical explosion blew dioxin through Bliss Residence Hall, the only thing separating the public from the toxins was a strip of yellow police tape. Photo by Eric Francis for Student Leader
News Service.
"ARE THERE any guarantees in life?" asked Karen Pennington, the SUNY-New Paltz director of Residence Life. "What you have to work with are the facts that you have available. And that's what we have. The facts that we have available, based upon what we know what PCBs are, that they haven't been found, in any level that would, according to science at this point, put anybody in jeopardy."

High levels of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were found in many parts if Bliss Hall, where Pennington spent last weekend in an effort to assure students the building was now safe. One widely reported reading of a million times the state's allowable level was founding the transformer room shortly after the explosion last year. Far more toxic chemicals – dioxins and dibenzofurans – were also generated and dispersed by the transformer explosion. They were found on three levels of the building.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently in the process of reviewing the toxicity status of dioxins and the EPA Office of Research and Development in February reportedly issued a status report acknowledging that there may be no safe level of dioxin.
Ward Stone, the state's wildlife pathologist and one of New York's leading experts on environmental contamination, said that PCBs should be treated with "respect." Numerous studies on animals, from mice to primates, link exposure to PCBs with a wide range of health problems, including cancer, still births, liver dysfunction, skin rashes and immune system suppression, he said.

Stone said Pennington's statement had failed to account for the fact that dioxins and dibenzofurans, supertoxins, were also found in the building. Toxins experts say that dioxins are known to cause birth defects and developmental disabilities in the children of people exposed to them.

Some forms of the chemical, which are in the Love Canal dump in Niagara Falls and were in the defoliant Agent Orange – as well as being found in Bliss Hall – are estimated to be a million times more toxic than the illegal pesticide DDTD and ten million times more toxic than the toxin vinyl chloride, scientists say.

The state, by its own rules, is allowed to leave detectable traces of dioxin behind after it cleans up a contaminated building.

Dean Palen, who is overseeing the cleanup for the county health department, said Saturday that he was comfortable with the cleanup level of 25 nanograms per square meter for dioxins and dibenzofurans because it conforms with state regulations.

"The whole thing is just outrageous – to mislead people and to lie to them and to have total disregard for the health and safety of the students there,3 said Lois Gibbs, who organized the evacuation of the contaminated Love Canal neighborhood in the late 1970s. She founded and now runs the Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste in Washington, D.C.

She was critical of the state's decision to allow students to claim property from 50 of the 90 dorm rooms in the building despite the fact that health officials said that not one article of bedding or clothing had been tested for contaminants.

Gibbs, whose struggle to evacuate the Love Canal neighborhood gave her extensive experience working with many of the same agencies now overseeing the New Paltz accident, described the county's and state's positions as predictable.

"Time and time again, they've said, there's no cause for alarm, no cause for alarm – until it was thrown up in their face and they could no longer deny it,"  Gibbs said.


John Hawley, who is overseeing the New Paltz cleanup project for the New York State Department of Health, said he is happy with the cleanup job. "I believe that if the levels within the building are below the [cleanup] criteria that have been established, the risk is very low and not of concern," he explained.

Ellen Connett, co-editor of Waste Not, a New York-based hazardous waste newsletter, questioned the credibility of Hawley's opinions on environmental toxins. "His department will approve anything," said Connett. "There is no confidence in the environmental community when it comes to Mr. John Hawley. He has allowed himself and his department to become a lap dog for industry and government polluters."

Connett said the most serious effect of dioxins was how they attack the immune system evening extremely small doses. That is something we cannot tolerate today, she said.

"Dioxin has always been known to be a very severe immune suppressor," Connett explained. "And when we have those rampant, horrible diseases out there, we cannot afford to have this."

Tom Webster, a biophysics researcher at Queens College and a member of the 14-member Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) peer review panel, said dioxins were unbelievably deadly.

"But it takes 20 years to kill you," he said.

Fred Munson, a spokesperson for the Boston-based Greepeace toxic program, said that whether PCBs are a dangerous environmental contaminant is "not even debated at this point."

But he was more concerned about the presence of dioxins and dibenzofurans in Bliss Hall. Dioxins and dibenzofurans were also found at lower levels in Gage and Scudder Residence Halls and Coykendall Science Building. Dioxin was found on a seat in Parker Theater.

"Even the concept that there's some safe level of dioxin that [students] can be exposed to on a daily basis where they live is just a joke," he said. "There is no safe level… Even the level they're talking about doesn't take into account the fact that these people will be living there."

Munson said that in doses smaller than one part per billion, dioxins can cause genetic mutations.


An employee of Clean Harbors – the state's environmental contracting firm running the cleanup – said that a test using a smoke bomb indicated that toxins had spread through the heating system of Bliss Hall. The heating system, which connects all rooms, is separate from the contaminated ventilation system, which connects only the bathrooms and the janitor's closet.

The Clean Harbors employee, who identified herself as Alison Smith and who was in Bliss Hall fielding questions much of the weekend, said some testing had been done behind the heaters of dorm rooms. Most of those tests came back with readings of toxic levels, she said.

Smith refused comment, directing calls to the college's public relations office. By press time, the college's official spokesman on contamination, Kenneth Burda, had not returned calls.  Smith also said that the ceilings of Bliss Hall had not been cleaned. PCBs are heavier than air, she said. Theoretically, they sink to horizontal surfaces like desktops and floors.

Other contaminated buildings, including Capen and Gage Halls, underwent  what is known as an "industrial cleaning", in which horizontal surfaces and contact surfaces – like desks, floors, doorknobs and toilet seats – were cleaned.

Where toxins were found, Smith said, these surfaces were cleaned with industrial strength Tide detergent.


Health officials said that a total of 29 tests for dioxins and dibenzofurans have been run on Bliss Hall to date, including surface and air tests. No dioxin or dibenzofuran tests were run on a room-by-room basis.

Hawley said the original dioxin-furan test on Bliss Hall did not include testing at the point of "ground zero" – the location of the explosion and the source of toxins, in this case the transformer room.

Inside the transformer room, closest to the explosion, is where the highest levels of all toxins will occur, experts with toxic cleanup say.

"When we said – and people have said it all across the state – test here because this is where the hot spots are, each and every time they'll check everywhere but there," Gibbs said. "Then when you finally force them to check the point source of dioxin or PCB contamination, they'll look for something else, like tobulene, benzene or chloroform. It is a direct manipulation by the state health department to achieve a goal that they have, and that goal is to open the dorm rooms."

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