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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

Scientists present Chafee Hall Phase I findings

KINGSTON, R.I. -- Jan. 10, 2001 --.Scientists hired by the University of Rhode Island to assess levels of PCBs in the Chafee Social Science Center presented their Phase I findings yesterday during a two-hour meeting in the Biological Sciences Center Auditorium.

More than 130 faculty, staff and administrators listened to a detailed analysis of the results from Kevin Coghlan, technical director of Environmental Health and Engineering (EH&E) of Newton, Mass., and Donna J. Vorhees, a senior scientist with environmental consultants, Menzie o Cura & Associates, Inc. of Chelmsford, Mass.

Coghlan, Vorhees, and J. Vernon Wyman, URI assistant vice president of business services, told the audience that many questions could not be answered until additional, more detailed tests are completed to determine the source of the PCBs, the patterns of exposure, the identification of individual compounds or types of PCBs in air and dust, and until an epidemiological study is designed and put into place.

This Phase I testing was designed as a screening, to "map out" the location of PCBs and assess the levels, said Coghlan.

Levels of PCBs were assessed in air samples, building materials, dust in the room unit ventilators, and samples wiped from desks and other surfaces in the physical workspace.

The wipe samples showed no detectable levels of PCBs in any of the four lecture halls or the eight-story office tower. Two of three wipe samples in the two-story low rise portion of the building showed no detectable levels of PCBs. The third sample was slightly above the limit of detection.

Vorhees and Coghlan said the results of the wipe samples are encouraging because they suggest surfaces that people come in to direct contact with are not widely contaminated.

However, findings from tests on exterior window gaskets on the fifth floor showed PCB levels of 4.2 parts per million and 30 parts per million. Coghlan said these gaskets could be one source of the PCBs measured in dust and air, but further evaluation is required to assess the gaskets' potential contributions to indoor levels of PCBs.

Dust in the unit ventilators from all of the floors in the Chafee office tower was tested, and detectable concentrations ranged from 8.2 to 81 parts per million. The highest PCB concentration was measured in ventilator dust from the first floor at 81 parts per million (ppm). While there is a federal OSHA standard for air samples, Vorhees said there is no similar standard for the material found in dust from the ventilators.

People maintaining the ventilators might contact this dust during periodic maintenance work, she said, but other people working in the building probably do not come into direct contact with this dust because it is inside the ventilators.

The air samples from the lobby, lecture halls, and the low-rise section of the building did not have detectable levels of PCBs. The second floor of the high rise also showed no detectable levels of the compound. However, PCBs found in air samples from the fourth floor of the high rise ranged from approximately 300 nanograms to almost 400 nanograms per cubic meter of air.

While those were the highest levels of the compound detected in any of the air samples collected, they are still well below the federal OSHA regulation of 500,000 nanograms per cubic meter and the recommendation by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health of 1,000 nanograms per cubic meter of air.

EH & E and the University will not rely on the federal OSHA regulation, but consider more recent toxicological information and regulatory guidance for PCBs to estimate possible risk to people using the building, to develop reoccupancy criteria, and to assist with the epidemiological study.

"The air test results do not directly correlate with the dust results (from the ventilators)," explained Coghlan. "The air tests found the highest concentrations on the fifth floor, while the dust samples were highest on the first floor in the room unit ventilators. It's clear that we are going to have to do more testing to find the source or sources of PCBs," he added.

The results of PCBs in dust are consistent with the PCB levels found by Rhode Island Analytical of Warwick, R.I. in late December.

As part of the next step, or Phase II of testing, by EH &E to find the source or sources, the firm will review the construction plans and blueprints for Chafee, which also detail modifications made to the structure that was built in 1972. "We also need to test more of the building materials," Wyman said, "and we will also be looking for dioxin."

The University is working with faculty and staff on the Chafee Hall Advisory Committee to select an epidemiologist to head an epidemiology study. "By Friday, we will have credentials of epidemiologists so we can make decisions quickly on a plan of action," Wyman said.

While there were several questions about how PCBs might affect a person's health, Vorhees knows of no medical test available that can determine the effects of PCB exposure.

Vorhees summarized some of the scientific literature that has reported associations between PCBs and health effects, such as neurodevelopmental effects, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, breast cancer, and other adverse effects. Whether long-term, low level exposure to PCBs might lead to such effects is still the subject of debate among health scientists. She went on to explain that recent epidemiological investigations have not found an association between PCBs and breast cancer.

"We want to bring in the best people to obtain the best answers, but please bear in mind that no one knows the complete answer," Vorhees said.

To one question about whether anything can be done to treat someone who has been exposed, Vorhees said she knows of no treatment that removes PCBs from a person's body.

Coghlan, who holds a master's degree in industrial hygiene from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and is a certified industrial hygienist, said while PCBs in dust and materials require more investigation,
the results of air samples are encouraging.

"These are not huge air concentrations, so I don't think people should be overly alarmed by these results, but they warrant a closer look and that's what we going to do," added Vorhees, a risk assessment specialist with a doctor of science degree from the Harvard University School of Public Health. More data and information are needed to provide a better understanding of possible risk to people using the building, she said.

According to Vorhees, several studies between the 1980s and the present measured PCBs inside U.S. homes and public buildings. For example, a recent study published in 1996 reports PCB concentrations ranging from 6 to 490 nanograms per cubic meter. Possible indoor sources of PCBs include capacitors in old appliances, fluorescent light ballasts, and PCB-containing sealants. The number of such sources should be declining following severe restrictions on the manufacture and use of PCBs beginning in 1977. However, there has been no systematic study of PCB concentrations inside buildings in the U.S.

Air samples from the new addition to Tyler Hall and Independence Hall were also tested to use for comparison. No PCBs were detected in Tyler, while PCBs were detected in Independence, though at lower levels than in Chafee. The addition to Tyler was constructed in the 1980s, while Independence was built in the 1960s, around the same time as Chafee.

Personnel from Rhode Island Analytical were stationed at the Chafee lobby yesterday and will be available until 5:30 p.m. today, Wednesday, to clean materials faculty and staff need to remove from the building for the start of the spring semester. They will be using methods and equipment approved by the Rhode Island Department of Health.

In addition, Rhode Island Analytical will begin environmental tests on Friday, January 12 at Ballentine Hall. All of their samples will be taken on that day. The testing is being conducted in response to concerns from faculty and staff in Chafee who may choose to relocate to Ballentine.

For more information: J. Vern Wyman, 874-7435,
Winnie Brownell, 874-4101, Linda A. Acciardo, 874-2116

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Page last revised on Monday, July 23, 2001 .