About Sarah Szymanski

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” - Charles Darwin
Sarah is a writer of Phase I Environmental Site Assessments. She traipses all over the Delaware River Valley looking for old maps, aerial photographs, or someone who knows anything about a site. She’s been to more county seats and township offices than she cares to admit, and has become well-acquainted with antiquated technologies of Philadelphia’s manufacturing history. Every site is a new story, and Sarah puts all the pieces together. Sarah is currently working towards a Masters degree in Environmental Science at Drexel University, and completed her BS in Environmental Science (dual major w/ English Lit) at University of Michigan. Sarah is a committed bicycle commuter, luckily she lives nearby. She currently serves as the Convener of the Board for Mariposa Food Co-operative in West Philly.  On weekends, she tends a garden that is treated as a playground by neighbor kids who will eat anything you pull out of the ground. Sarah recently bought a nearly 100-year-old house, so she is learning all about plaster repair, plumbing, window replacement, and wallpaper removal. Even though it’s hard for her to envision free time, she likes to swim in lakes when she can, preferably the Great Lakes.

PCBs in Caulk

CaulkingIn 2012, several school renovation projects were hindered by caulk. The reason: PCBs.

In Connecticut, the towns of Southington and Fairfield discovered PCBs in the window caulking of their middle school and high school, respectively. In both cases, the discovery led to an unexpected increase in cost. The clean-up can also be confusing, since PCBs leach from caulk into surrounding porous building materials, including masonry, wood, and concrete. In October, the USEPA issued a reinterpretation of PCB Bulk Product Waste, specifically to address this issue.

PCBs, short for Polychlorinated Biphenyls, were commonly used in electrical equipment and building materials, until Congress banned manufacture of the toxic chemical in 1979. PCBs were used in caulk to impart flexibility, and can still be present in buildings constructed or renovated in the 1950s through the 1970s. The USEPA states that caulk containing PCBs at levels ≥ 50 parts per million (ppm) must be removed. When disposed, the caulk is to be managed as PCB Bulk Product Waste.

Now, here’s the tricky part. Because PCBs in caulk are known to contaminate adjacent building material, any surrounding building material that is coated by ≥ 50 ppm PCB-containing caulk is also considered PCB Bulk Product Waste if the caulk is still attached to the building material at the time of designation for disposal. To quote the EPA: “if your abatement plan states that you intend to dispose of the PCB caulk and any contaminated building materials together and the PCB caulk becomes separated from the adjacent contaminated building materials during remediation, you may still dispose of all the materials as a PCB Bulk Product Waste.” The plan is what’s important, not what happens between the building and the dumpster. If the caulk and building material are disposed of separately, then the building material is managed as a PCB Remediation Waste. The respective disposal options are outlined here.

With all the nitty gritty of disposal regs, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture: how to minimize exposure to PCBs, especially in schools. Air monitoring in affected schools can determine the inhalation exposure. Diligent housekeeping can minimize ingestion exposure. Encapsulation is effective at very low levels. Ultimately, all PCB-containing caulk should be removed.

Have you discovered PCBs in caulk during renovations, or gotten tangled up in disposal questions? Leave a comment below, or feel free to contact me at Sszymanski@repsg.com. Happy 2013!

Long-Term Impacts of Lead

Children Raising Hands

The use of lead-based paint was phased out by the EPA as of 1978. Yet, 34 years later, lead remains on surfaces in many aging homes.

Last month, James wrote about the soon-to-be-implemented Philadelphia ordinance requiring rental units to be certified as “lead free” or “lead safe” (read his post here for more details).

Now, here’s another reason to care about lead exposure in homes. Children exposed to lead tend to do worse in school than kids who are not exposed. A Massachusetts case study shows that the concentration of lead in a child’s bloodstream is linked to their academic performance later in life. The research found that the state’s investment in lead abatement led to improved standardized test scores among elementary school students a decade later.

Add this to the research from 2007 linking childhood lead exposure to crime rates. As a poison that targets the nervous system, lead is shown to negatively impact control impulses in children. People that are exposed as youth are more likely to have juvenile and adult criminal records. Earlier studies focused on the impact of car exhaust during the era of leaded gasoline. Now that we’ve cleaned up the air a bit, the focus has shifted to lead paint, which persists especially in low-income communities.

So, starting in December, does this mean that Philadelphia is on its way to a smarter and less violent city? Let’s hope so. It may not be much of a consolation to landlords facing tighter regulations now. But, hey, maybe it’ll pay off next decade when there are fewer broken windows to repair, and property values are soaring in those safe neighborhoods with high-performing city schools. Feel free to share your thoughts on the topic in the comments below, or contact REPSG with any questions about lead exposure and abatement.

Vapor Encroachment Explained

In a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) report, these days you are likely to see an evaluation of vapor encroachment conditions at the site. If you haven’t, you will. The upcoming update to ASTM’s Phase I Standard proposes to treat vapor encroachment like any other source of contamination, and thus a routine component of environmental due diligence.  So, what is it?

Think of vapor encroachment as a cousin of vapor intrusion.

According to the EPA, vapor intrusion occurs when there is a migration of volatile chemicals from contaminated groundwater or soil into an overlying building. Evaluation of vapor intrusion identifies contamination sources on- site. Vapor encroachment, on the other hand, also considers off-site sources. Think of vapor encroachment as a screening tool.

Vapor encroachment screening identifies releases in the vicinity of the subject property and, based on the contaminant plume, evaluates the likelihood of vapors migrating to the subsurface of the subject property. Vapors, in this case, consist of any chemical of concern (COC); and their presence or likely presence constitutes a vapor encroachment condition (VEC). The ASTM standard for this screening (E2600-10) uses a two-tiered approach (not to be confused with the EPA’s three-tiered vapor intrusion guidance!)

Tier 1 of vapor encroachment screening uses state and federal database records to identify those sites with the potential to affect subsurface vapor conditions. Much like the radius search for a Phase I report, Tier 1 employs a 1/3 mile radius for releases of non-petroleum products, and a 1/10 mile radius for releases of petroleum products. If a VEC cannot be ruled out, i.e. there are open sites within the search distance, then on to Tier 2.

Tier 2 starts out as a non-invasive records review. If you’re lucky, the state will have regulatory files for sites identified in Tier 1, and those files will contain the location of the source and contaminant plume. Based on the relation of the plume to the subject property, it is possible to rule out a VEC. If you don’t have access to plume info, or, if a VEC cannot be ruled out non-invasively, the next option is sampling – of soil, soil gas, and/or groundwater.

Ultimately, there are four possible outcomes of a vapor encroachment screen: 1) VEC exists; 2) VEC likely exists; 3) VEC cannot be ruled out; or 4) VEC can be ruled out. In the context of a Phase I ESA, the environmental professional determines if a VEC represents a recognized environmental condition (REC) for a specific site.

As vapor intrusion receives more attention from regulators, vapor encroachment screening can be a useful tool to delineate vapor concerns originating on-site and off. The intent is to provide an evaluation of vapor in the soil, thus refining the determination of vapor that may end up indoors. Some agree, some disagree, either way it is here to stay. Have you found vapor encroachment screening to provide insight or headaches? Leave a comment below, and please feel free to contact me at Sszymanski@repsg.com with your vapor encroachment questions.