Expert on PCBs says there’s a way to check TCI fire data
GHENT–A physician and public health expert told a public forum this week put together by the Columbia County Environmental Management Council (CCEMC), that the analysis from tests for PCB contamination conducted by the state following the industrial fire at TCI may be inaccurate.
The forum, which lasted a little over two hours, was held Monday night at the West Ghent Recreation Center and was attended by about 50 people. The CCEMC arranged the event and invited David Carpenter, MD, to speak and answer questions from members of the council and community. Dr. Carpenter, an expert on PCBs, is director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the UAlbany School of Public Health. He has been the director of a PCB research program since the 1980s.
PCBs comprise a group of manmade substances called polychlorinated biphenyls. Once used for a variety of industrial purposes, the manufacture and use of PCBs has been banned since the 1970s. They can adversely affect the development of embryos and infants, and are suspected carcinogens, among other problems.
Following the August 1 TCI blaze, many concerns arose among area residents exposed to the plume of smoke from the fire, including questions about the quality of testing conducted by the state agencies and a lack of testing for dioxins. Dioxin is a byproduct created when PCBs burn. Dioxins are much more dangerous to human health and the environment than PCBs. County residents have been calling for the additional testing, but according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, “because all of the tests determined that PCBs and other contaminants are not present or present at low levels, no testing for dioxins or furans is necessary. Detectable levels of PCBs form the basis to determine the need to conduct additional tests for other potentially hazardous substances.”
But Dr. Carpenter said that the state’s approach to measuring the contamination may have been inadequate because the state used Aroclor tests that look for the patterns of commercial mixtures of PCBs. He said that when the PCBs stored at the TCI building burned in the fire, their chemical “profile” would have been altered. Thus, the tests done by the state would not have detected PCBs because the patterns would not match what the department was looking for.
He said that a more expensive test would have been detected any PCBs, which have different chemical formations, called congeners. He also faults the state Department of Health for not conducting the additional dioxin testing.
“Granted, that analysis is very expensive. But simply to do none of those analyses is a mistake,” said Dr. Carpenter. “You don’t want to panic people, but it’s not appropriate to tell people that things are safe when you really don’t have the information.”
He acknowledged that he could not say for sure whether the state’s analysis was adequate enough to detect PCBs. He said the next thing to do would be to look at the graphic record of samples called chromatograms. Having someone look at these graphs would help determine whether the state’s analysis was adequate, he said. He suggested that Assembly member Didi Barrett, who represents Ghent and who had a representative present at the forum, request a copy of the chromatogram data. Ms. Barrett convened a meeting shortly after the fire at which members of the public were able to question state and federal experts about test data.
Asked whether he knew of any fires similar to the one at TCI, just off Route 9H in West Ghent, Dr. Carpenter said he could not think of any. He recalled several incidents where fires remained indoors, unlike the TCI blaze in which contaminants were released into the open air. The main concern, he said, is the soot. The contaminants in the air are not as much an issue because they are likely gone, but according to Dr. Carpenter, particles attached to the soot don’t go away.
He also addressed agricultural concerns, saying that as long as vegetables were washed following the fire, then there is no major concern. He said that PCBs are fat-soluble, so they wouldn’t affect produce, since plants have no fat.
Asked about the sodium that was at the TCI facility during the fire, Dr. Carpenter said he did not know what purpose the substance would have in relation to PCBs. According to an inventory report submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency on August 2 by TCI, there were 16 55-gallon drums of sodium metal and 3 cylinders of a sodium/oil mixture being stored at the West Ghent facility by partner company of TCI’s called Power Substation Solutions. Sodium reacts violently with water. Dr. Carpenter said it would better if the sodium had burned in the fire because it would have created heat so extreme that PCBs and dioxins could have been broken down. However, after hearing descriptions of the fire from residents who live close to the site, he said that it sounds like it was likely a lower-temperature, more dangerous fire.
While Dr. Carpenter said that regulations and restrictions should be strictly enforced if TCI rebuilds, he believes the company performs a necessary service. Plants like TCI recycle old transformers, disposing of the PCBs in a way that is environmentally safe. He added that nobody can avoid PCBs, saying that everybody is constantly exposed to them, especially in our food supply. However, they are dangerous and should be avoided when possible.
He maintained that the state had an obligation to do what he believes is the appropriate testing. “The community deserves some answers,” he said.
“They say PCBs were not present,” said county Environmental Management Council Chairman Ed Simonsen. “Well, maybe you buy that. Dr. Carpenter doesn’t. I don’t.”