The State Department of Environmental Conservation and the State Department of Health sponsored a special informational meeting in Port Washington recently to discuss the opening of a Sbarro restaurant at the site of the former Munsey Cleaners. The site, at the southeast corner of Port Blvd. and Main Street, is an inactive hazardous waste site. An initial remedial investigation indicated that PERC contamination exists in the groundwater and the soil. However, after significant and successful remediation efforts, officials report that the site is safe for a restaurant.
This article will first explain what PERC is, then give the history of the site and the remediation efforts to date, and then review some of the concerns raised by local residents who attended the meeting.
The New York State Department of Health issued a fact sheet explaining what PERC is and how it affects us. The sheet also includes the safety guidelines determined by topologists for PERC. Following are some important questions and answers pertaining to PERC provided by the fact sheet.
Tetrachloroethene is a manufactured chemical that is widely used in the dry cleaning of fabrics, including clothes. It is also used for degreasing metal parts and in manufacturing other chemicals. Tetrachloroethene is found in consumer products, including some paint and spot removers, water repellents, brake and wood cleaners, glues and suede protectors. Other names for Tetrachloroethene include PERC, tetrachloroethylene, perchloroethylene and PCE. PERC is a commonly used name and will be used in the rest of the fact sheet.
PERC is a nonflammable, colorless liquid at room temperature. It readily evaporates into air and has an ether-like odor. Because most people stop noticing the odor of PERC in the air after a short time, odor is not a reliable warning signal of PERC exposure.
People are exposed to PERC in air, water and food. Exposure can also occur when PERC or material containing PERC (for example, soil) gets on the skin. For most people, almost all exposure is from PERC in the air.
PERC gets into outdoor and indoor air by evaporation from industrial or dry-cleaning operations and from areas where chemical wastes are stored or disposed. Groundwater near these areas may become polluted if PERC is improperly dumped or leaks into the ground. PERC may get into indoor air after PERC products, such as spot removers, are used. Indoor air levels in air may get high if PERC products are used in poorly ventilated areas. It can also evaporate from polluted drinking water into indoor air during cooking and washing.
When people breathe air containing PERC, the PERC is taken into the body through the lungs and passed into the blood, which carries it to all parts of the body. A large fraction of this PERC is breathed out, unchanged, through the lungs into the air. Some of this PERC is stored in the body (for example, in fat, liver and brain) and some is broken down in the liver to other compounds and eliminated in urine. PERC can also be found in breast milk. Once exposure stops, most of the PERC and its breakdown products leave the body in several days. However, it may take several weeks for all of the PERC and its breakdown products to leave the body.
The strength (potency) of PERC to cause health effects is low, but breathing air with high levels of PERC can damage many parts of the body. In humans and animals, the major effects of exposure are on the central nervous system, kidney, liver and possibly the reproductive system.
The health effects of PERC depend on the level and length of exposure. Figure 1 shows the types of health effects seen in humans and animals and the lowest levels of PERC in air at which the effects were seen. The diagram on the right side of the figure shows the effects of long-term exposures in humans and animals whereas the diagram on the left side shows the same information for short-term exposures. Because there is a large amount of information on the human effects of PERC, the rest of the fact sheet will discuss only the human data.
Not all humans exposed showed effects at the levels given in Figure 1. Some did and some did not. This difference was due, in part, to the individual differences among humans. People, for example, differ in age, sex, diet, family traits, lifestyle and state of health. These differences can affect how people will respond to a given exposure. One person may feel fine during and after an exposure while another person may become sick. This is known as sensitivity . Differences in sensitivity should be kept in mind when examining the following information on the human health effects of PERC.
Studies with volunteers show that short-term exposures of 8 hours or less to 700,000 micrograms per cubic meter cause central nervous system symptoms such as dizziness, headache, sleepiness, lightheadedness and poor balance. Exposures to 350,000 micrograms for 4 hours affected the nerves of the visual system and reduced scores on certain behavioral tests (which, for example, measure the speed and accuracy of a person's response to something they see on a computer screen). These effects were mild and disappeared soon after exposure ended.
Studies of dry cleaning workers indicated that long-term exposure (9-20 years, for example) to workplace air levels averaging about 50,000 micrograms to 80,000 micrograms reduces scores on behavioral tests and causes biochemical changes in blood and urine. The biochemical changes indicate liver and kidney damage. The effects were mild and hard to detect. How long the effects would last if exposure ended isn't known.
There is only one study of long-term exposure to air levels lower than in the workplace. The study reported reduced scores on behavioral tests in healthy adults living (for 10.6 years, on average) in apartments near dry cleaning shops. The effects were small; the average test scores of the residents were slightly lower than that of unexposed people. The average air level in all apartments was 5,000 micrograms and the median was 1,400 micrograms (that is, half the measured air levels were above 1,400 micrograms and half were below it).
Some studies show a slightly increased risk of cancer and reproductive effects among workers exposed to PERC, including dry cleaning workers. The cancers associated with exposure included cancers of the esophagus and cervix and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The reproductive effects associated with exposure included increased risks of spontaneous abortion, menstrual and sperm disorders, and reduced fertility. The data suggest, but do not prove, that the effects were caused by PERC and not by some other workplace air levels; however, workplace air levels are often considerably higher than those found in outdoor air or indoor air of homes or apartments.
NYSDOH recommends that the average air level in a residential community not exceed 100 micrograms of PERC per cubic meter of air considering continuous lifetime exposure and sensitive people. Three other ways of expressing the guideline are 0.1 milligrams per cubic meter of air, 0.015 parts per million (ppm) and 15 parts per billion (ppb).
The guideline can be used to guide decisions about actions to reduce human exposures to PERC. NYSDOH recommends, for example, that actions to reduce exposure should be considered when an air level is above the guideline. NYSDOH also recommends that the need to take immediate action to reduce exposure should be considered when an air level is ten times or more higher than the guideline. The specific corrective actions to be taken depends on a case-by-case evaluation of the situation. In all cases, however, the NYSDOH also recommends that simple, common sense actions to reduce exposure (such as covering open containers of PERC) should be taken even if an air level is below 100 micrograms.
The guideline of 100 micrograms is not a line between air levels that cause health effects and those that do not. The guideline is much lower than the air levels that caused either non-cancer or cancer effects. Thus, the possibility of health effects is low even at air levels slightly above the guideline.
In addition, the guideline is based on the assumption that people are continuously exposed to PERC in air all day, every day for as long as a lifetime. This is rarely true for most people, who are more likely to be exposed for a part of the day and part of their lifetime. This difference between assumed exposure and actual exposure should also be considered when air levels are slightly above the guideline.
In summary, measured air levels that are slightly higher than the guideline are not automatically cause for concern, but suggest the need to consider actions to reduce exposure.
If you believe you or your children have symptoms that you think are caused by PERC exposure, you and your children should see a physician. You should tell the physician about the symptoms and about when, how and for how long you think you and/or your children were exposed to PERC.
If you have any questions about the information in this fact sheet or would like to know more about PERC, please call the New York State Department of Health at 1-800-458-1158 ext. 2-7810.
A release from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation dated June 6, 2001 stated the following:
Dry-cleaning operations started at the site in 1949 and continued until 1995. The site has been vacant since then and all dry-cleaning equipment has been removed.
The site has been listed in the state's Registry of Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Sites because of soil and groundwater contamination there. A remedial investigation to determine the extent of soil and groundwater contamination from spills and releases of the dry-cleaning compound PERC has recently been completed.
A soil sample taken by DEC from a basement sump at the site during the summer of 1994 revealed PERC contamination. A follow-up site inspection and sampling visit by the Nassau County Department of Health confirmed the disposal of hazardous waste. A sample of the dirt floor from the basement was found to contain significant concentrations of PERC. Soil samples taken from a basement floor drain and sump were also found to be significantly contaminated.
The owner of the site entered into a consent agreement with the DEC to conduct a Preliminary Site Assessment (PSA) and Interim Remedial Measure (IRM) at the site in 1996. Approximately 30 tons of contaminated soil were removed from the basement area and a soil vapor extraction system was used to remove remaining shallow soil contamination in the basement. Final verification of soil samples indicated that the contamination from the shallow soil had been removed, so operation of this system was discontinued in July 1998.
DEC determined that additional investigation work for the site was required to define the extent of groundwater contamination. The site owner signed a second consent agreement to conduct a remedial investigation. The results from this investigation indicate that the groundwater at and around the site is contaminated and is moving northwest. A subsurface soil sampling program outside and immediately adjacent to the building has also been completed. The results indicate no measurable contamination in the soil outside the building.
The New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) conducted indoor air quality sampling at the site in August 2000. The results indicated that PERC in indoor air exceeded the NYSDOH ambient air quality guideline of 100 micrograms/cubic meter for PERC. Upon the request of the Town of North Hempstead, NYSDOH collected indoor air samples to determine if contamination associated with the site is affecting the indoor air quality within other businesses in the plaza. The results showed that indoor air quality in the basement area at the site and in one business adjacent to the site had levels of PERC exceeding the NYSDOH guideline. The level of PERC in indoor air of all of the remaining sampled locations in the plaza was less than the NYSDOH guideline.
Future activities at the site will include a feasibility study to identify potential remedies for the groundwater contamination originating from the site, and additional investigations to determine the source of PERC found in the basement indoor air. Based on the final results of the investigations and the feasibility study, DEC will identify a preferred remedial alternative to address the groundwater contamination at the site. DEC will present the preferred alternative in a Proposed Remedial Action Plan (PRAP) that will be made available for public comment. DEC will also hold another public meeting to discuss the PRAP and to accept comments from the public The Department's final decision on a remediation strategy will be presented in a Record of Decision.
Copies of investigation reports and other site documents are available at the Port Washington Library and at the DEC's regional office in Stony Brook. Further information may be obtained by calling Mark Lowery at (631) 444-0350.
Approximately 100 people attended the meeting, in part because of fliers sent out to the community from Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington. Along with some thoughtful questions and concerns, residents expressed a mix of support and opposition to the use of the site to the panel of professionals which included Mark Lowery, NYSDEC Regional Citizen Participation Specialist, Andrew English, P.E., NYSDEC Project Manager, Vivek Nattanmai, P.E. NYSDEC Project Manager, Wendy Kuehner, NYS Department of Health Assistant Sanitary Engineer and David Wasserman, A.I.A., Town of North Hempstead, Commissioner of the Department of Building, Safety Inspection and Enforcement.
One person asked why the Town is allowing construction, despite the fact that some contamination still exists on the site.
David Wasserman advised that the readings taken by the NYSDEC and NYS Health Department indicate that the site is safe for a food establishment. He informed the audience that these agencies will not allow Sbarro to use the back portion of the basement where there is a higher, though still safe, level of concentration of PERC. The Town told Sbarro that they can only use a portion of the basement and the street level floor. According to Ms. Kuehner of the DOH, these last two spaces have readings of 46 and 13 respectively (the established guideline is 100), which are not in concentrations of exposure to have health affects.
The prohibited area in the basement has a reading of 67 .The DEC advised that they will do further investigations and remediation to reduce the 67 number even further, continuing to stress that the approval to open a restaurant on the site, is a related but separate issue.
Responding to a statement made by the officials that further deep soil investigation will be made by the DEC to pinpoint and further remediate the source of the higher readings in the back of the basement and the groundwater contamination, one gentleman stated that he felt the groundwater and soil contamination was one issue.
Considering the fact that young children will be eating there, one young mother voiced concern over the fact that PERC may have a cumulative affect on their young, small bodies.
Wendy Kuehner from the Dept. of Health replied that if PERC is ingested in the body, the body breaks it down and eliminates it, usually in two to three days, though sometimes in two weeks. "PERC is processed by the body. It doesn't accumulate," she said.
However, the mother said she was still concerned about possible by-products and their affects on kids.
Craig Johnson and Wayne Wink asked who would be responsible for monitoring the positive pressure ventilation system, which is helping to contain and remediate the PERC in the air, and how often would this monitoring occur once the restaurant opened? Commissioner David Wasserman advised that the Town is waiting for Sbarro to submit the monitoring, maintenance and action plan that will identify the specifics of these issues. After it is received, the plan will be reviewed with the DOH and DEC, followed by the establishment of procedures and requirements relating to the use of the site as a restaurant
Mr. Wasserman added that in the event that any monitoring is not completed in a timely manner and/or results come back indicating that they are not in compliance with guidelines established by the various agencies, the permit will be immediately revoked.
Wayne Wink also asked what kind of wall will be constructed in the basement between the area Sbarros is permitted to use and the one it can't use. Again, he was told that these details still have to be worked out, but will be included in the final accepted plan for the site.
Sbarro attorney Tom Abbate spoke for his client. He said, "Common sense dictates that a worldwide successful corporation like Sbarro would never, ever, do anything that would endanger its customers." He added that, after using their own resources for an in-depth investigation, the company determined that the site was safe.
He also expressed confidence in the five members of the board of appeals who have been working on this for quite a while. "They're there to protect you and your interests," he told the audience. "We will be complying with every agency coming down the pike," he exclaimed. "Believe me, Sbarro would never force its way into a community. A company like ours didn't get where we are by doing things like that," he concluded.
One gentleman asked if the town would be willing to post public disclosures in the restaurant stating that the site is an inactive hazardous waste site. He noted that this was done at Captain's Cove in Glen Cove.
David Wasserman responded that the area where there is a potential for exposure is not open to the public. "The public can't access it," he said.
Another man commented that he was impressed with the "heavy payroll" of the panel and the amount of time and money that has been spent on the investigations and remediations involved with the site. "I trust the decision of the DEC and DOH, he said. "They're not cabals to destroy the town or bring death and pestilence to the town."
He added that he'll eat there himself and bring his grandkids. A few in the audience jeered at this remark.
After the meeting one woman commented that she doesn't feel safe. Another person remarked that he was glad he attended the meeting because he got both sides of the story. And, another person reacted by saying that he feels that prior to the meeting, a lot of inflammatory terms were being thrown around which created frightening scenarios, which just don't exist.