Chemophobic Chemical Concerns

The former CTS plant at 235 Mills Gap Road.
(Photo: Citizen-Times file photo)
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By Kevin Roeten:

Kevin Roeten
Science Editor

Does chemophobia ever die? Evidently to some people, chemophobia can not only cloud, but totally obscure rational thinking. It’s likely many Asheville citizens have an irrational fear of some chemical they don’t understand. “Chemophobia,” is the unreasonable fear of chemicals, and is a common public reaction to media reports suggesting exposure to various environmental contaminants may pose a threat to health. Chemophobia usually is typically hand-in-hand with incomplete knowledge. The biggest problem is so many just misunderstand science. Every substance in the known universe is a chemical. Every chemical produced and used, has special effects helpful to most any process. Stephen H. Safe, of The New England Journal of Medicine, 1997 officially defined chemophobia. As the unreasonable fear of chemicals,it is a common public reaction to media reports suggesting…exposure to various environmental contaminants may pose a threat to health.

Over the last several years, the writer’s hometown of Asheville, NC has attracted various ‘wanabes’ into its environment. Chemophobia originates from a misunderstanding of science. Every substance in the universe is a chemical. Chemophobia has been exacerbated by analytical techniques able to measure parts permillion. Now techniques can give parts per billion and  now—parts per trillion. Almost always, the media reports a chemical has been detected. Even if a chemical has been found in something like groundwater, it hardly ever supercedes harmful  levels. The reasonable level first recorded at CTS was only ppm. But now, parts per billionand parts per trillion art obtainable. The sheer numbers send residents off the charts! It must be remembered that [ppb] is 1000x [ppm],and [ppt] is 100,000x [ppm].

As a very close resident to CTS, web have a water well to 140 feet just to obtain water. An incredible hoax came around in 1997. Foisted on the populace was the“Dihydrogen Monoxide” scare. Who knew? The DMHO hoax turned out to be only water. And chemophobes went ballistic when they first encountered DMHO.

Closer to home here in Asheville, the CTS Plant in Arden closed in 1986, but was castigated for trichloroethylene left on the premise. Several years ago, the EPA leveled the plant in Arden. Nothing remains but old growth, the entering shack, and the fence. The whole Arden site became a Superfund Site, which spread fear throughout South Asheville. The main chemical was trichloroethylene buried underground [e.g., TCETrike, or Trilene]. Attempted cleanup had no effect on TCE in the groundwater, especially when the EPA leveled the CTS plant some years ago. However, this Arden plant was labelled a Superfund Site, and millions were sucked into the effort. An EPA-sanctioned soil-vapor extraction system has been operating there since 2006. Bulldozing the now flat CTS plant, more dollars were poured into the alleged ‘cleanup.’

These standards ignore EPA’s 2001 Draft Human Health Risk, however. Assessment for TCE which, before it was discarded for largely political reasons, found that [.017 μg/m3, —–  .003 ppbv] was associated with a one in a million (10-6) excess lifetime cancer risk. However, the outdoor air across the country contains TCE above that abandoned 2001 guideline. So far, no cancer has ever been proven by TCE inhalation in any case.

Limited Theoretical Hazards

So many forget Trichlorethylene was used extensively in the 50s and 60s for extracting vegetable oils from palm, soy and coconut. It was also used in coffee decaffeination. Also forgotten for being a gas anesthetic, especially breathing 1% TCE through self-administered analgesia—specifically any woman experiencing childbirth difficulties. Its ‘TLV’ stands at 50ppm. The ACGIH lists it as: “not suspected to be a human carcinogen.” In California alone, over 73 facilities have used TCE. Millions of people have used it, but there is no known case of a human getting cancer because of TCE.

In the most contested “chemophobe” case in history, DichoroDiphenylTrichoroethane became viewed as the most feared synthetic chemical ever made. Most ‘oldsters’ remember it as DDT. Worldwide, the majority of countries were pressured to eliminate DDT. There was a ban of DDT manufacture in 1972, almost effectively stopping the production completely. This was exacerbated in 1972 when Silent Spring came out talking about eggshell thickness for birds, was even though it was deemed 10-12 percent thinner before DDT was first used.

In the most absurd posturing ever of chemophobia, in 2008 the World Health Organization [WHO] estimated 1,000,000 deaths due to DDT not killing malarial-infected mosquitoes. Malaria was always a health challenge in Africa, India, Brazil, and Mexico where 69 percent of all malaria cases occurred. “DDT was called a “miracle weapon like Kryptonite to the mosquitoes, and serves as one indicator that repellency is very important in preventing indoor transmission of malaria.”

Shockingly, population control advocates blamed DDT for increasing Third World population. WHO wanted overpopulation stopped. They wanted to assure 40 percent of children in third world countries would die of malaria. [Desowitz, RS. 1992. Malaria Capers, W.W. Norton & Company]

Why would so many feel justified with the deaths of almost 80 million children mostly in Africa from malaria. This genocide is painfully described by Steve Jalsavec in the need for DDT. In Guyana, DDT had almost eliminated malaria, but at the same time, the birth rate had doubled. A plethora of information is contained in junkscience.com. It has 100 things you should know about DDT.

Unnecessary Special Requirements Made

Temporary Relocation of Residents of 3 Homes;  Additional Air Testing Planned in June 2014: Water Line Construction; Drinking Water Well; Sampling Update;  Well Water Filtration

At the CTS site and around it, people were told proving medical injury was too difficult. Other people in the area [supposedly 67 activists] suspect diseases can be attributed to decades of contamination from the site. Unfortunately, DENR drew a one-mile radius around the CTS site, rather than comparing those exposed to TCE and other contaminants in their water and air to people who were not so exposed. A state health official is now conducting a more in-depth health risk analysis, but it is still based on the same one-mile radius.

CTS Corp. has expand testing near its long-closed manufacturing plant, agreeing to a federal government request raised concern over whether underground contamination from the Superfund site might be more widespread. Representatives with the Indiana-based company with the Environmental Protection Agency said CTS has conducted more testing of an underground contamination plume covering 119 acres.

The plume, about the size of 90 football fields, pushes into the backyards of some homes in Southside Village, a gated community near the former plant off Mills Gap Road. New testing fills in data gaps on the western side of the contamination, said Davina Marraccini, an EPA spokeswoman. “CTS agreed and their contractor is planning to conduct additional sampling of the air, groundwater, surface water and sediments,” she wrote in an email. “Pending permission from adjacent property owners, the data will be collected this summer.” That agreement came shortly after EPA officials released a conceptual site model including a graphic depiction of the pollution overlaid on satellite images.

The model indicates the chemical degreaser trichloroethylene, has been detected in underground wells and natural springs. Private property bordering the CTS land to the east is cordoned off behind a chain link fence. Testing of a spring in that restricted area has shown TCE readings of 30,000 parts per billion. But the drinking water guideline set by the EPA is 5 parts per billion.

CTS shuttered the facility, at 235 Mills Gap Road, nearly three decades ago. TCE was among chemicals the plant used to manufacture industrial switches and resistors. While much of the information about contamination from the plant has long been available in reports and schematic drawings, the new easy-to-read color renderings more clearly illustrate the scope of the contamination.

A diagram of CTS site contamination. (Photo: Special to the Citizen-Times)

EPA released the conceptual site model. Since at least 2012, the EPA has been calling for a conceptual site model, with EPA hydrologist Kay Wischkaemper writing in a memo the document would allow communication between government agencies. “A common understanding is ritical for this initial work plan and historically that common understanding has not been communicated adequately between EPA, CTS and the state of North Carolina,” she wrote.

The graphics show the TCE plume extending about 7/10 of a mile northeast of the CTS plant site. But monitoring of its western edge — the side nearest Southside Village — appears not to have extended far beyond the suspected contamination source. The distance from the concrete pad where the plant once stood to the farthest monitoring site is about 300 feet. A spring at that point has tested with TCE levels of 330 parts per billion. That spring is in a wooded area not far off Mills Gap Road and is unfenced. It poses no unacceptable situations.

ASHEVILLE – CTS Corp. will expand testing near its long-closed manufacturing plant, agreeing to a federal government request that raises concern over whether underground contamination from the Superfund site might be more widespread than once thought. Representatives with the Indiana-based company in a March meeting with the Environmental Protection Agency said CTS would conduct more testing on the western edge of an underground contamination plume covering 119 acres.

That plume — about the size of 90 football fields — pushes into the backyards of some homes in Southside Village, a gated community near the former plant off Mills Gap Road. New testing would fill in data gaps on the western side of the contamination, said Davina Marraccini, an EPA spokeswoman. “CTS agreed and their contractor is planning to conduct additional sampling of the air, groundwater, surface water and sediments,” she wrote in an email. “Pending permission from adjacent property owners, the data will be collected this summer.”

That agreement came after EPA officials released a conceptual site model that includes a graphic depiction of the pollution overlaid on satellite images. The model indicates the chemical degreaser trichloroethylene has been detected in underground wells and natural springs. Private property bordering the CTS land to the east is cordoned off behind a chain link fence that carries trespassing and danger warnings. Testing of a spring in that restricted area has shown TCE readings of 30,000 parts per billion. The drinking water guideline set by the EPA is 5 parts per billion.

The distance from the concrete pad where the plant once stood to the farthest monitoring site is about 300 feet. A spring there has tested with TCE levels of 330 parts per billion. That spring is in a wooded area not far off Mills Gap Road and is unfenced. It poses no unacceptable risk from recreational exposure and does not require fencing. Monitoring along western side of CTS has not occurred since 2012, and is now being planned to fill in data gaps that have been identified since at least 2009, according to EPA officials.

A CTS contractor, who will install the new monitoring devices, will first use direct push points, said Craig Zeller, the EPA manager for the CTS Superfund site. Direct push points are a relatively quick and temporary way to assess potential contamination. “Once that plume is better defined, more permanent monitoring wells will be installed both inside and outside of the known plume area for monitoring (and potential remediation) purposes,” Zeller said. Tate MacQueen, who lives near the plume to the northeast and has long advocated for cleanup of the site, said he is happy to see installation of any monitoring wells that might provide a better understanding of groundwater movement. “If there are plans to expand the monitoring, that would be a step in the right direction,” he said.

Monitoring wells have shown contamination from trichloroethylene, or TCE, in a 119-acre area extending northeast of the former CTS plant. A spring near the plant has shown TCE readings of 30,000 parts per billion, or ppb. Five ppb is considered safe for drinking water. (Photo: Gannett graphic)

Home construction in Southside Village, at 149 Mills Gap Road, began in the late 1990s. The residences linked into city water and many sit on a mountainside above the CTS site. Terese Figura, a board member of the Southside Village Homeowner’s Association, asked the EPA earlier this year to better explain their agency’s understanding of potential risk posed by the CTS site. In a pair of letters, the director of the EPA’s Superfund Division wrote that indoor and outdoor air testing and soil sampling carried nounacceptable risks to human health. Drinking water was also not an issue.

But the documents also indicates further investigation will better determine the extent of groundwater contamination and options for cleaning it up. “At the CTS of Asheville site, a Remedial Investigation is underway — one purpose of which is to collect data to further characterize site conditions,” Hill wrote. “When that investigation is completed, we will know more about the extent of the contamination in relation to your neighborhood.”

Personal Experience

I remember as a young boy, many kids in New Orleans, Louisiana, used to get kicks by riding their bikes directly behind large trucks spraying DDT out its ‘back’ to kill mosquitoes. Even though DDT had a Permitted Exposure Level [PEL/OSHA] of 1 microgram per cubic meter, or 1 part per million [ppm], over a million people in the states were exposed to these small amounts of DDT. As expected, there has never been a confirmed case of cancer—ever. As a Chemical Engineer, living ‘downwind’ less than a mile away, the writer knows some chemicals can be dangerous in small amounts at times. Being cognizant of that kind of information alleviates any fears. Of course, in the 1990s, the [TLV] was only 50ppm.

There are over 250 known phobias, and chemophobia seems to be a very common fear. Wasn’t it FDR who said: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself…”

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Kevin Roeten can be reached at roetenks@CHARTER.NET.

© Copyright by Kevin Roeten, 2018. All rights reserved.

Kevin Roeten
About Kevin Roeten 168 Articles
CHO's science editor Kevin Roeten is a former Chemical Engineer. He enjoys riding the third rail of journalism: politics and religion. As an orthodox Catholic, Roeten appreciates the juxtaposition of the two supposedly incompatible subjects.   Kevin is a Guest Columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times, and the Independent (Ohio), and writes for numerous blogs (Nolan Chart, Allvoices) and newspapers, including USA Today.   A collaborator in the book Americans on Politics, Policy, and Pop Culture (Jason Wright and Aaron Lee), he is also an amateur astronomer, and delves into scientific topics.   Kevin Roeten can be reached at roetenks@charter.net.