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PlanetWavesBliss Hall test may have implications in other buildings

By Eric Francis | Return to Main Page
Woodstock Times, August 18, 1994

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.
TESTS CONDUCTED in the severely contaminated Bliss Residence hall, which showed how toxic smoke from a PCB transformer explosion contaminated the building's heating system, should prompt additional testing in three similar dormitories where contaminations occurred, say two engineers and one of the world's leading experts on PCB contamination.

But state and county health officials and college administrators say the smoke bomb test was a dud. The test was inaccurate, they say, and the results were discarded.

In an effort to discover why PCB, dioxin and dibenzofuran contamination spread the way it did in Bliss Hall on the SUNY-New Paltz campus in an electrical accident last December, Clean Harbors, SUNY's contracted cleanup company, conducted one or more tests in the building using smoke bombs.

Smoke bomb tests were reportedly also used to investigate the contamination patterns in the Binghamton State Office Building, which was badly contaminated in a 1081 PCB fire.

According to Alison Smith, Clean Harbor's manager of analytical operation, the smoke bomb test indicated that smoke followed the path of heating pipes in Bliss Hall, which prompted spot-checking for contamination behind radiators in student rooms there.

"We did see that some smoke came out of some heating vents," Smith said.

She added that a total of about five tests for contamination were then conducted behind radiators in some rooms on "all floors", which revealed that PCB's reached at least one student room on the third floor of Bliss Hall via the heating system.

According to college spokesperson Kenneth Burda, Clean Harbors invalidated the results of the smoke bomb test or tests. The test was done in the heat of summer; the accident occurred in winter. Because of the obvious climatic differences, Burda explained, the results were declared invalid by the company.

Contradicting Smith's account of the test, Burda said test smoke only escaped into the room directly above the vault. The test's "unofficial results", he added did not reveal any contaminated areas that had not been previously identified.

Dave Delucia is a PCB and dioxin activist who battled with the SUNY-Stony Brook administration and state health officials over the cleanup of a lecture center contaminated by a chemical fire in 1987. He said results from the smoke bomb test in Bliss Hall probably understated the reality of the PCB spread.

"Smoke rises," Delucia said. "The colder it is outside, the faster the smoke will rise".

Delucia argued that the smoke from the Bliss Hall explosion was likely to have spread further and faster than the smoke from the smoke bomb test.

Capen, Gage and Scudder residence halls were also contaminated by smoke from PCb transformer fires last December, and should also undergo tests for contaminations in their heating system, experts say.

"To test to see if there is contamination or possible contamination is a reasonable thing to do," said Dr. Arnold Schechter, a medical doctor who is considered on of the world's leading authorities on PCB and dioxin contamination.

Schechter, the former Broome County Health Commissioner, is best known for his controversial role in the cleanup of the Binghamton State Office Building is still closed.

Many observers credit this level of caution to Schechter's extremely conservative approach to handling the cleanup.

"It would seem like a reasonable precaution" to test the other residential halls, said Michael Jensen, a professor of mechanical engineering at Rensellar Polytechnic Institute (RPT).

"Assuming the other three dormitories had the same construction procedures, similar age and similar aging, then it would seem like a reasonable move," he added.

Jensen said he was concerned that if the heating units in buildings are contaminated, the heat could contaminate the air in the rooms where students live by evaporating the smoke residue. "If some of the heavier smoke got into the radiator, conceivably (heat) could volatize the oil… and move it around the room," he said in an interview last week.

Smoke could have traveled along the heating conduits in all four buildings, said Constantine Yapijakis, a professor of environmental engineering at Cooper Union in New York City.

"As long as there's a passage way, contaminants will be moving," he said. "All kinds of cracks and openings will allow movements of contaminants. Smoke is very volatile and very easy to go through small openings."

Dr. John Hawley, who is overseeing the New Paltz cleanup for the state Department of Health, said he believes that testing of the heating system in Capen, Gage and Scudder halls "would seem to be logical" only if the release of toxins was similar in all of the buildings involved. But he said that he believed the release in Bliss "was different than the release in other buildings."

Halwey said that a report and a video tape documentary of the smoke bomb tests were prepared by Clean Harbors. Neither has been released to the public.

Witnesses who were in Capen and Gage halls at the time of the fires said both buildings were filled with white PCB smoke. There was an explosion in the Gage Hall transformer room.

Readings of 30,000 times the state's "safe" limit for PCB's were found in the transformer vault in Scudder Hall. A high reading for dioxins and dibenzofurans was also taken outside the transformer vault, though no sample was taken inside the vault.

By contrast, officials have admitted that the Bliss Hall transformer experienced a severe explosion, which blew the loading dock door off the building and exploded the heat vents leading to the outside. Officials have reportedly said the Bliss explosion was the worst malfunction of all six transformers that were affected by a massive power spike last year.

While Bliss Hall is still closed for decontamination nearly a year after the explosion, about 800 students are living in Capen, Gage and Scudder halls. Capen and Gage halls were opened a month after the electrical accident. Both Capen and Gage were opened with numerous areas still sealed for contamination. Scudder Hall was reopened by health officials and the college administration in August.

Dioxins and dibenzofurans, which are far more toxic than PCB's and are created when PCB's burn, were found in all affected dormitories except for Capen Hall. Yet only scant testing for dioxins and dibenzofurans has been done in campus buildings.

Skeptics claim cleanup consultants are relying mainly on PCB testing to trace the flow of all contaminants because PCB tests are only a fraction of the cost of dioxin/furan tests. Dioxin/furan tests costs up to 2000 US Dollars a pop. PCB tests cost about 100 US Dollars each.

"There's a concern here, and we hope that the state Department of Health is looking at good science and not just dollar bills," said Ellen Connett, co-editor of Waste Not, a Syracuse-based hazardous waste newsletter. Connett said evidence is mounting that dioxins and dibenzofurans are far more toxic than previously believed and should be looked for carefully in buildings where they were released.


Most experts sat that while PCB's are known toxins that can cause cancer and numerous other problems, compounds called dioxins and dibenzofurans are the real concern where PCB fires occur. Both groups of compounds are created when PCB oil and a number of other toxic compounds burn at relatively low temperatures, as they do in a transformer fire or explosion.

Dioxins and dibenzofurans are so toxic that they are measured in quantities as small as picograms, or trillionths of a gram. A compound known as 2,3,7,8 trichlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (2,3,7,8 TCDD), believed to be one of the most toxic substances on earth, was found in Bliss and Scudder residence halls. It is said to be 1 million times more potent than the toxic vinyl chloride.

A 14-member "peer review panel" is re-evaluating the toxicity of the dioxin group for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The most recent research, included in the report to the EPA, indicates that for some body responses, there is no minimum "safe" level of dioxin. The immune system's response to 2,3,7,8 TCDD may be 100 times more sensitive than the body's cancer response.

Also 2,3,7,8 TCDD is believed to cause birth defects and genetic disorders when present in the human body in quantities as low as one part per billion, according to Fred Munson, a toxins specialist for Greenpeace. According to state cleanup rules, a "clean" building can have up to 25 nanograms, or billioths of a gram of 2,3,7,8 TCDD per square meter of surface area.

"Even the concept that there's some safe level of dioxin that (students) can be exposed to on a daily basis where they lie is just a joke," Munson said recently. "There is no safe level."

On Friday, Dr. John Hawley, who is overseeing the New Paltz cleanup for the state Department of Health, said he believes dioxin will be downgraded as a toxin as a result of the EPA review. "The primary emphasis has been that it's less toxic than it was formerly thought," he said.

Dr. Arnold Schechter, who is considered one of the world's leading experts on the issue of PCB and dioxin contamination, said the paper and pulp industry asked EPA to reassess the toxicity of dioxins, which are waste products of paper production. Numerous other chemical processes, including PCB manufacture, also produce dioxins.

The paper business initiated the review in hopes that the determination would be that it was less toxic than previously believed, Schechter said. "The paper and pulp industry was pushing very hard to have that happen. In the EPA under Regan/Bush, that might have been possible.


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