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Health Risks Of Decades-Old Chemical Plume Remain Unstudied

Ed Williams
Robert Miranda at his home in Albuquerque's Sawmill District

When state environment workers were taking groundwater samples in downtown Albuquerque back in the 1990s, they discovered a large plume of a solvent called trichloroethylene, or TCE—a toxic chemical that causes cancer and birth defects—just 35 feet below the ground. 

The Environment Department eventually tracedthe source of the TCE plume to an old industrial brick building near downtown Albuquerque owned by Laun-Dry Supply Company, a business that distributes dry cleaning chemicals. Over time, those chemicals seeped into the ground and spread through the shallow groundwater at least a mile and a half east under Creamland Dairies and other businesses, under a fire station, into a couple of cemeteries, and maybe even under people’s homes.

"TCE is a volatile chemical that evaporates," said Lenny Siegel, who analyzes TCE contamination for the California-based Center for Public Environmental Oversight.

"And when it’s in groundwater, it evaporates underground, becomes soil gas, and that soil gas is actually sucked to the surface by buildings. And you really don’t know whether the air is acceptably safe in those buildings unless you do some monitoring beyond the groundwater."

Credit Ed Williams
A pump sucks up polluted groundwater behind the Laun-Dry building.

The state has sampled the air inside a few commercial buildings in the area, and some of those tests have detected low levels of TCE vapor wafting up from the Laun-Dry plume. TCE contamination in the groundwater has been measured at over 60 times higher than the state standards in some places nearby. There aren’t any city water wells near the plume, so drinking water contamination probably isn’t an issue. But, Siegel says, those levels of solvents in the ground could be a problem for people on the surface, if the chemicals are vaporizing and coming up into buildings.

"People have a right to know if there is contamination in their water or their air, even if the government decides that the concentrations are acceptable," Siegel said.

Both the state’s and the EPA’s guidelines say air monitoring should be happening in more structures near the plume, and that there should be a human health risk assessment to see if there is a danger. But that hasn’t happened yet.

Robert Miranda has lived in an adobe home in the Sawmill District for the past 11 years with his daughter Crystal. Monitoring wells have picked up levels of TCE at over 100 parts per billion just beyond Miranda’s backyard. That’s 20 times the level that would trigger an air study in many states. But, like his neighbors, Miranda says he was not aware there was any TCE contamination in the area.

"I haven’t heard from anybody, no one came around," he said. "I would like someone to come by and have my home checked, because it’s not a cement slab, it’s off the ground."

Older buildings, especially ones with dirt crawlspaces like Miranda’s, are at an even higher risk for TCE vapor.

But it’s also possible Miranda and others in the area have nothing to worry about. Just because there’s TCE in the groundwater doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in the air.

Still, experts say an investigation into possible air pollution from the Laun-Dry plume is due, or in this case long overdue, since the solvents may have been in the groundwater for decades.

Credit Public Health New Mexico
Monitoring well readings taken in the Laun-Dry plume investigation. Some wells have measured chemical solvents orders of magnitude higher than state standards. The size of the bubbles on the map correspond to the amount of contamination measured.

"Unfortunately we can’t go back and rewrite history, to the extent exposures may have occurred in the past," said Dr. Will Athas, an epidemiologist at the University of New Mexico. "Certainly to the extent that the solvents may be intruding into homes, businesses, coming up through the air, that would be a cause for concern in an area that, from a public health point of view, should be fully explored."

The City of Albuquerque has known about this TCE plume for years, but officials there declined to comment for this story. A spokesperson for the New Mexico Environment Department would not agree to an interview before air.

So that leaves Robert Miranda with questions he says he wants answered: Why haven’t people in the area been told about the plume, and why hasn’t more monitoring taken place?

"Anything that has chemicals you know you gotta watch out for that," he said. "That’s dangerous, you don’t want to be around it all the time sniffing it or anything. It's very scary."

Ed Williams came to KUNM in 2014 by way of Carbondale, Colorado, where he worked as a public radio reporter covering environmental issues. Originally from Austin, Texas, Ed has reported on environmental, social justice, immigration and Native American issues in the U.S. and Latin America for the Austin American-Statesman, Z Magazine, NPR’s Latino USA and others. In his spare time, look for Ed riding his mountain bike in the Sandias or sparring on the jiu-jitsu mat.
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