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PlanetWavesContaminated dorms in New Paltz are set to open yet again, as state officials drag their feet on new safety testing.

By Eric Francis | Return to Main Page
Published in Chronogram, August 2007.

Where's your data?
Capen Residence Hall, SUNY New Paltz. like most contaminated places, it looks perfectly normal. On Dec. 29, 1991, a PCB transformer overheated, spreading toxic fumes throughout the building. Today, their residues may be sickening students. Photo by Steve Bergstein.
"NOBODY wants to hear that there's no way to say it's safe."
So said Edward Horn of the New York State Department of Health in a Planet Waves interview earlier this month. Perhaps the most candid comment I'd ever heard from a state official in 16 years of covering the PCB and dioxin disaster at SUNY New Paltz, Ed Horn at least understands one thing: when you live in one of the four dorms affected by 1991 transformer explosions and fires -- Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder halls -- you are living a place where there is contamination.
After more than $50 million spent on testing, cleaning and renovations so far, the question is whether students will be exposed to that contamination, and if so, how it will affect them. That question has been debated through the spring and summer by campus leaders, community organizers and county and state officials from a variety of different agencies, including the SUNY New Paltz administration and its cleanup contractor, Clean Harbors, Inc.

Planet Waves has been providing ongoing coverage of the PCB and dioxin contamination at SUNY New Paltz. We covered the subject most recently in the article Growing Up, and prior to that in From Blacksburg to New Paltz. More articles and resources are located here. If you would like to contact the author of this article, send email to francis@planetwaves.net
The result of all these meetings: there will be no additional tests of the dorms before they re-open on Aug. 21. The college may put together a summary of what happened so that it can respond to queries from students and parents, but that is unlikely to include a warning about the safety of the buildings or lack thereof. College officials consistently tell parents that the buildings are safe but do not mention that cleanup plans specifically granted permission not only to leave "acceptable" levels of contamination, but also state that these levels could kill a certain number of students.
No scientific study has so far been able to determine that there is a safe level of exposure to the toxins. The newest science is studying responses to extremely low doses that are just as dangerous, if less obvious, than high-dose exposures. This is to say, where there is exposure, there will be an effect somewhere in the population. It is difficult, if not impossible, to precisely predict where or when. Those with weak immune systems, previous exposures even to certain household chemicals, or genetic abnormalities will be affected more profoundly than others.

Where's your data?
Bliss Dormitory at SUNY New Paltz, scene of one of the worst indoor PCB disasters in New York State history. Students' property in half the building was deposited into a toxic waste dump; the other half was returned without being tested or cleaned. It was re-opened to students about 18 months after the explosion. Photo dated 1992 by Eric Francis.
Even at barely measurable and ever-tinier levels, these chemicals are known to disrupt the body's hormones, suppress the immune system, cause birth defects and in study after study are shown to be potent cancer accelerators. What does ever-tinier mean? Fifteen years ago, Greenpeace dioxin expert Fred Munson said that as little as one part per billion of dioxin lodged in the human body was probably dangerous (this is called the body burden). Now it's known that the current average body burden of about 10 parts per trillion (100 times less than the old estimate) will cause cancer in up to 10% of the population.

No company has ever produced dioxin as a consumer product. PCBs were widely manufactured for more than five decades. Though listed as a "probable human carcinogen," PCBs are one of the few chemicals ever to be banned by name by congress, under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. That was more than 30 years ago, but PCBs were so widely used and so environmentally persistent that they remain a health concern, turning up places like farmed salmon, meat and dairy products -- and college dorms.

Dioxins and PCBs are bioaccumulative. Each dose adds to what is already there. They also affect the children of those exposed. According to a new study from The Netherlands that followed mother-child pairs for 15 years, children of dioxin exposure victims typically show problems by age 8. These include measurable delays in puberty, such as breast development and first ejaculation, as well as other developmental issues. Dioxin exposure in the father has also been linked to childhood vaginal cancer in their daughters.

"Most students are planning to have families. Exposure in the dorms is not a good idea. Dioxins tend to bioaccumulate and so do PCBs," said Erik Janssen, the executive director of Department of Planet Earth, an environmental group that focuses on dioxin.
While state officials point to reams of test results saying levels of toxins in the dormitories are at worst within the state's acceptable limits, the other side of the story is what areas were not tested. That means no data exists for certain locations and therefore the toxins levels are unknown.

Where's your data?
Pipe chases, or the spaces through which plumbing is routed, in Gage Hall's basement. Pipe chases, which are essentially gaps in the construction of a building, are now acknowledged by the New York State Department of Health as a probable route of the spread of toxins in Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder residence halls. Photo dated May 2007 by Eric Francis.
Areas in the dorms that the state has never done publicly known tests on include the heating systems in Capen, Gage and Scudder halls; exhaust vents in Capen Hall; electrical conduits in Capen and Gage; and many other areas.

Vents in Gage Hall were first sampled in 1994, two years after the building was reoccupied by 370 students, and were found to have been contaminated throughout. They were cleaned to the "arm's length," and the building was opened with the rest of the vents still contaminated.

Independent testing conducted in 2004 by Planet Waves indicated that contamination levels in the Gage vents are close to their original, pre-cleanup levels. There is no follow-up testing of ventilation ducts in the places where they were worked on, and there has been neither testing nor cleanup of the vents in Capen Hall at any time.
One problem being discussed by state officials and community leaders is that testing and cleanup programs were inconsistent from building to building. For example, after the heat system was discovered to be a pathway of contamination in Bliss Hall, tests were never performed on the similar heat systems in the other three dorms, all of which fogged over with greasy PCB and dioxin-laden smoke.
In Bliss Hall, contamination was discovered to have moved through what are called pipe chases -- spaces and gaps in the building where hot water pipes are routed to student rooms. In the summer of 1992, a simulation test in Bliss Hall using a smoke bomb revealed that fumes moved from the transformer vault directly to radiators. When radiators were tested for contamination, it was found, and the radiators were cleaned using Tide detergent. While that cleaning is unlikely to have addressed the issue thoroughly, the heat in Capen, Gage and Scudder halls was neither tested nor cleaned prior to the buildings being reoccupied.
A decade and a half later, Horn concedes that "it's a very reasonable hypothesis" that smoke followed the pipe chases in all four dormitories like it did in Bliss Hall. But in recent weeks he has repeatedly said he's opposed to testing the radiators for contamination. Instead, Horn proposed in at least one meeting with students and my phone call with him that the state's money would be better spent on merely cleaning the buildings. For instance, instead of remediating the heat with a testing and cleanup project, conducted with full protective gear (as is customary where PCBs and dioxins are involved), Horn suggested that janitors could simply remove dust from the radiators.
"The way to keep exposure down is to wash the radiator fins," he said. Currently, the college is vacuuming out the heat in the dorms, but this is supposedly not related to the PCB cleanup. Horn said state officials had complaints about the heat not working last winter and decided it would help to vacuum out the radiators, which is likely to have disturbed and redistributed contamination hidden there.
For this and other reasons, Ward Stone, a toxicologist for the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), questioned the wisdom of not conducting tests for toxins prior to cleaning the heat.
Where's your data?
Hardly anyone remembers when the campus looked like this. This photo of cleanup crews with independent air supply working outside Bliss Hall in January 1992. Photo by Eric Francis for Student Leader News Service.
"If you're cleaning up something, what is it you're cleaning up?" Stone asked in June. "If there was a fire involving PCBs with data on the buildings, including our own data, you have to know what you're cleaning up."

Stone, one of the state's most vocal environmental advocates, assisted in 1993 and 1994 with determining that the ventilation ducts in Gage Hall were indeed a pathway of contamination in that building.

That the vents were contaminated was long denied by those involved in the cleanup; indeed, on many occasions their very existence was denied by health department officials. With the revelation of one contaminated vent above a kitchen stove, the Ulster County Department of Health conducted an impromptu testing program, in which it confirmed that the entire ventilation system was contaminated. It then ordered an "arm's length cleanup" of the vents just days before students returned.
Dean Palen, commissioner of the Ulster County Department of Health, wrote a letter reauthorizing the use of Gage Hall on Aug. 11, 1994 to then college president Alice Chandler. In his letter, he promised to clean the rest of the vents during the next student break. That additional cleanup was never done.
When Planet Waves went back a decade later and tested the same vent outlet that led to the Gage Hall cleanup, located in a kitchen lounge above the stove, the PCB level was back up to 80% as high as the original, pre-cleanup level.
Questioned about this last month, Horn proposed that contamination deeper within the vents had spread outward toward the vent entrances, as it will typically do along a smooth metal surface. But he did not feel this represented a health threat to students.
"If there is a negligible possibility that somebody can be exposed to a chemical, this is not going to be considered a public health concern," he said, adding, "I could never understand why anybody was concerned about the insides of vents."

An obvious question might involve air. Because these are exhaust vents, health officials say they are not concerned, since the air is exiting the building via the roof. Obviously this exhaust air needs to be tested so we know what concentrations are being vented from the interior of the building to the outside. There are state and federal regulations regarding blowing PCBs into the air. Yet the notion that the air from exhaust vents never vents back into the building is an assumption that needs to be tested and is another example of missing data.
In a June 22 meeting with community members, Horn suggested that areas in buildings where students were unlikely to contact could have toxins levels higher than the state's cleanup criteria or maximum allowable levels. Those areas might include heaters, ventilation ducts, pipe chases and the interiors of floors and walls.
Where's your data?
Dean N. Palen of the Ulster County Health Department. Photo by Eric Francis.
We agreed to call his theory the "route of exposure theory" -- which is to say, if no theory exists for how students might get exposed from a contaminated area such as inside a ventilation duct or radiator, then it's not considered a public health concern.
Yet state health officials have done no studies on the behavior of students to see what exposure routes might be possible, and students are not given warnings. For example, even if a hot radiator is not emitting PCBs under normal conditions, what happens when a student is keeping a pot of water on the grates to humidify the room, and the water spills? Likewise, nobody knows for certain how many students sleep with their heads close to the radiators and whether that makes a difference.
Likewise, the pipe chases "will be a reservoir [of contamination] and will remain so," Horn said, but "are not a concern to the students."

"There's a million and one ways to get exposed," Janssen countered. "It all attaches to dust. You can track it around. You just don't want this stuff in the same building, particularly with students, who are going to have children." PCBs or dioxins absorbed by a woman in her dormitory will be passed onto her child during gestation or when she is breast feeding. But the effects might be too subtle to notice and, five years or a decade down the line, would be unlikely to be connected with exposure at New Paltz.

I asked Susan Zimet, a member of the Ulster County Legislature, whether it was acceptable to her to have the dorms re-opening in August without additional testing. "We all have different standards of what we think is acceptable and nonacceptable. I go to one extreme, and other people have different standards."

"I am trying to work with the students to do the best that we can to get to the bottom of this issue. And I'll keep working to get some comfort level on the issue. My basic feeling is, let's do the tests and let's put this to bed once and for all. But nothing's that damned simple when it comes to government."

The college president, Stephen Poskanzer, declined to comment. Eric Gullickson, a college spokesman, said, "The college, along with the New York Sate Department of Health and the Ulster County Health Department, is confident that our residence halls are safe...Unfortunately the author of this article has a history of misrepresenting the facts regarding the PCB contamination and cleanup on campus 16 years ago and continues to employ fear-mongering tactics creating unnecessary alarm among students and their parents."

In May at a public forum, the campus physician, Dr Peter Haughton, said that PCBs were not that harmful because they are used in cooking oil. He was mistakenly referring to the Yusho incident, a mass PCB and dioxin contamination involving rice bran oil in Japan in 1968 that poisoned 1,200 people and their unborn children. Victims suffered agonizing effects for many years, including liver damage, severely disfiguring acne, and birth defects in their children.

Dioxin and PCB encyclopedia Where's your data?
More New Paltz articles and resources Where's your data?
Our Stolen Future Where's your data?
Dept. of Planet Earth Where's your data?

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