Testing finds hazardous TCE under some College Terrace homes

State regulatory agency previously dismissed trichloroethylene risk

A cancer-causing chemical found at Stanford University's University Terrace housing development, which officials claim has not spread to the adjacent neighborhood, has been found in some College Terrace homes, according to a report submitted by several residents.

A professional hired by residents tested under 19 homes within about 100 to 200 feet of the site's border at 1601 California Ave. The consultant, Blayne Hartman, an expert in soil vapor sampling, analysis and intrusion, found levels of trichlorethylene (TCE) at six homes that exceeded the allowable levels mandated by state and federal Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. The data was analyzed by Ed Schmitt, a retired chemist and College Terrace resident, and the residents submitted a 32-page report to the Palo Alto City Attorney and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).

Stanford discovered the TCE and another hazardous chemical, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), after contractors demolished buildings at 1601 California Ave. in late 2015. The university, which is building 180 junior faculty residences at the site, submitted a revised subdivision map to the city that will relocate 29 residences and reconfigure some streets to avoid placing the homes on the most contaminated areas. On Tuesday, June 28, Stanford will ask the Palo Alto City Council to approve the map amendment.

City Planning and Community Environment Director Hillary Gitelman and City Manager James Keene are recommending the approval, according to a planning department memo.

But College Terrace residents say their consultant's findings demand that the city should postpone any approval until DTSC, which has oversight of hazardous material spills, has reviewed the new report and has signed off on a Preliminary Endangerment Assessment, according to a letter submitted to the city by resident Fred Balin, principal coordinator of the College Terrace study.

Stanford excavated 1,400 tons of dirt and removed the PCB, which clings to soil. But TCE, which was found to a depth of at least 25 feet, was not removed because it is present as vapor between soil particles, which is much harder to eliminate, according to assessments by university consultants. TCE exposure has been linked to kidney cancer and non-Hodgkin Lymphoma; short-term exposure can lead to birth defects in developing fetuses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Stanford consultants have said the TCE poses no threat to College Terrace residents. University officials submitted a Hazardous Risk Assessment plan to the DTSC late last year, which proposes to move 29 planned residences within its development boundaries from atop the most contaminated spots. The university plans to go further than required by adding vapor barriers, ventilation and other measures to as-yet-to-be-constructed homes. But the plan offers no mitigation or protection for homes in College Terrace, which is just across California Avenue from the project site.

Stanford and DTSC have maintained that additional testing for vapor intrusion, which stopped at the project site's border on California Avenue, was not necessary. Stanford's consultants did not find evidence of TCE migration, and a March 18 finding by DTSC supported those results.

But the College Terrace testing found that in basements and crawl spaces of five homes the levels of TCE vapor exceeded state and federal maximum allowable "screening" levels by between 1.65 and 36.6 times above the federal and state Environmental Protection Agency's "screening" requirement of 0.48 micrograms per cubic meter. The crawl space levels ranged from 0.76 to 17.6 micrograms per cubic meter.

Hartman also tested the living rooms in those homes. In four of the five cases, a lower level of TCE was detected in the living room than in the crawl space, implying a source of TCE from below the first floor, according to a double-blind study, the report noted.

"The most likely mechanism for TCE to get into the crawl space area is by soil vapor diffusion from more concentrated soil areas," according to the report.

The testing did find potential anomalies. In the fifth home, the living room screening level was higher than that of the crawl space, raising the concern of an indoor source of TCE, such as contamination blown or tracked in; leaky, old cleaning or paint products or a non-representative crawl

space sample. Samples from a sixth home showed a living room TCE level higher than the federal/state screening level, although the crawl space measurement was below the allowable level.

Overall, five living rooms showed TCE concentrations ranging from 0.6 to 3.3 micrograms per cubic meter, or 1.25 to 6.8 times the federal/state level. The measurements ranged between 108 to 202.3 feet from Stanford's property line for the crawl space tests and 98 to 224.3 feet for the living room samples.

The report also sought to translate those numbers into relative cancer risk.

Based on the federal Environmental Protection Agency's equations for cancer risk, every TCE vapor concentration has an associated cancer risk. The state/federal 0.48 micrograms-per-cubic-meter level represents a one-in-a-million excess lifetime cancer risk. Cancer risks for crawl space/basement samples in excess of the federal/state 0.48 level are between one in a million to one in 27,000, according to the report.

"Even though the sample number is small, the data suggests there are higher levels of TCE in sampled homes found closer to the project's property line than only a hundred feet further away," the report noted. "Initial conclusion: The (DTSC) statement that 'the College Terrace community is safe with respect to potential vapor intrusion to constituents detected in soil vapor at University Terrace' is not supported by the data in this study."

Other residents support the College Terrace findings.

The city's staff report should describe long-term monitoring for the overall project site and the city should wait to review the proposed subdivision amendments until the DTSC review and after any additional requirements are completed by Stanford, Doria Summa and Margit Aramburu, wrote in a separate June 23 letter to the City Council.

The changes to the map Stanford has made are also not minor under the city's own definition, and the Planning and Transportation Commission should be directed to review the proposed design and improvement amendments as a new or revised filing, they wrote.

But the memo to the City Council from Gitelman and Keene disagreed with the residents' contentions and recommends that the City Council approve Stanford's proposed subdivision amendment. The final map deals with the subdivision of land and specifically addresses the contamination within the subdivided area, and that, in their view, is all that is required.

"The information regarding the off-site situation (College Terrace) should not affect the determination of the on-site situation," they wrote.

In separate request for comment made by the Weekly, city officials underlined that they view the TCE contamination at College Terrace as separate from the University Terrace site.

"DTSC has not yet determined the source of the off-site TCE identified in the residents' report. However, DTSC has thoroughly assessed the on-site TCE contamination and has informed the city and applicant that the revised layout coupled with passive mitigation measures make the site safe for residential habitation," Claudia Keith, chief communications officer for the city manager's office, forwarded on the city's behalf.

"There are multiple potential source of TCE in the area. In addition to former industrial uses in the area, consumer products containing TCE (cleaning products, spot removers, glues and adhesives) can also serve as indoor air sources," officials added.

Stanford spokeswoman Jean McCown said the university does not have much in the way of a comment. She said officials understand that DTSC is reviewing the residents' materials.

"The California Avenue edge of 1601 was extensively tested and no detectable levels of TCE were found," she said, noting DTSC's March 18 letter.

Keith said DTSC has informed the city that its agency will review the College Terrace sampling results, and, if warranted, will take follow-up actions.

"This is the appropriate next step and we look forward to hearing the results of DTSC's evaluation," Keith wrote.

DTSC officials said that Stanford hasn't yet proposed measures to address the area of most significant impact by the TCE and the process under DTSC's oversight hasn't concluded.

"At this point, we have just agreed that the risk assessment shows it is acceptable to construct the faculty housing where it is currently proposed," a spokesman said.

DTSC is reviewing the residents' report and officials will communicate with the community after the review is completed, he aid.

DTSC initially determined that the TCE would not be an intrusion into College Terrace because moving further away from the onsite sources the agency observed declining TCE levels. The chemical was not detected at concentrations above screening levels in the onsite soil gas samples nearest to the California Avenue boundary of the site, according to DTSC.

Related content:

VIDEO: College Terrace resident Fred Balin joins Weekly Editor-in-Chief Jocelyn Dong and reporter Sue Dremann to discuss the underground toxins at Stanford Research Park


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53 people like this
Posted by no thanks
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 27, 2016 at 9:45 pm

TCE causes cancer and birth defects. Stanford wants to sell these homes for 7 figure price tags. Come on folks, if you have that kind of money, you should be smart enough to live far away from this mess. Stanford needs to dig up all that contaminated dirt and purify it somehow. Then seal the hole with a massive concrete slab before putting clean dirt down on top of it. Then move the college president's family there to demonstrate that it is really safe.

36 people like this
Posted by maggie
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 28, 2016 at 3:17 pm

maggie is a registered user.

The question to ask is, were Stanford's test sites along their California Avenue boundary drilled deep enough and sufficiently close together? And if not, why not? Was this clearly inadequate testing deliberate?

During previous testimony to the council, Stanford's representative(s) adamantly denied there was any question toxic substances had migrated beyond Stanford's property into the adjacent residential neighborhood. Imperiously dismissing as completely unfouded residents' concerns Stanford's testing had not been extensive enough. Leaving nearby residents no choice but to pay for a consultant themselves. The result of which is the discovery that, lo and behold, the same toxic fumes under Stanford's property are migrating up out of the soil, under and into nearby houses.

Why is a new Environmental Impact Report not being required to address this issue before resuming construction? Extensive testing under nearby properties must be required to ascertain the extent of the toxic plume, how many homes are contaminated, together with a detailed report as to what measures will be implemented to address the contaminated homes.

To add insult to injury, Stanford representatives now try to raise doubts about the origin of this toxic plume, implying that there is a question as to whether Stanford is responsible. To de-link this toxic plume from their construction project and to treat it as a separate issue.

For Keene and Gitelman to urge the council to approve Stanford's request to resume construction before requiring significant testing under adjacent residences to determine how far and deep the plume has migrated, and a detailed plan from Stanford as to how they will mitigate the contamination under the impacted houses, is outrageous.

34 people like this
Posted by Bad Neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 28, 2016 at 3:32 pm

I am not surprised one bit by this. Stanford has been a bad neighbor for at least 40 years. Time to de-annex them! They are unbelievably wealthy and can pay for their own fire and police services ( I don't mean the rent-a-cops they have now).

3 people like this
Posted by maggie
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 28, 2016 at 6:04 pm

maggie is a registered user.

They do pay for their fire and police departments, they pay Palo Alto

18 people like this
Posted by nereader
a resident of Escondido School
on Jun 28, 2016 at 8:36 pm

Are Escondido Elementary school kids exposed to high level of TCE???? That school is so close to 1601 California Ave!!!!

30 people like this
Posted by college terrace resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 29, 2016 at 7:31 am

I think it is highly irresponsible of Keene and Gitelman to hastily disagree with the expert findings about College Terrace contamination and urge City Council to approve of Stanford's amendment.

It's ironic that James Keene quotes Aristotle in his city biography about we can not escape each other's destinies, and our lives are intertwined, and how we should care and respect the environment.

Would Keene and Gitelman be willing to have THEIR families live on those lands determined by scientific tests to be found contaminated? How about this? Perhaps as future Stanford residents and potentially College Terrace residents near and around that contaminated lands get sick and develop health issues.... sue Keene and Gitelman for not doing their due diligence. For hastily approving the plans without further environmental studies? Let the future health of current and future residents, their impact rest back on their shoulders?

Perhaps then... they will realize our futures are intertwined. Especially since they are so confident the College Terrace contamination is not a big deal and neither is the Stanford findings. Make Keene and Gitelman legally liable for their hasty actions and course of action here even when provided with scientific data.

26 people like this
Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 4, 2016 at 8:38 am

Fred Balin is a registered user.

Maggie’s rapid-fire responses are insightful and on target.

Some follow-up on the specific areas:

1. Adequacy of Testing, TCE Migration Beyond the Site
In its recent risk assessment, Stanford’s consultant concluded TCE is isolated, contained, and not present in the groundwater on the 1601 Cal Ave site. However 20 months ago, in a similar investigation of the adjacent property, 1501 Cal Ave, and conducted by the same principal investigator, TCE was identified in the groundwater above maximum contamination level and coming from a 1601 Cal Ave source over 300 feel away. This finding was also specifically highlighted in a letter from DTSC to Stanford at the time, but the finding was not disclosed to the city and not included in city's environmental evaluations for the project then or now.

2. New Environmental Impact Report (EIR), Additional Testing Before Construction
Absolutely, the hazmat section of the environmental documents should be updated. The PCB and TCE contamination on the 1601 Cal Ave site was discovered in 2015 after building demolition, and in May an expert measured elevated levels of TCE under and within College Terrace homes. Both findings are new information not anticipated in the 2005 EIR or the updated Environmental Confirmation Memo submitted in 2014. They represent changed circumstances under the California Environmental Quality Act. City staff ignored this and instead asserted the application can move forward as is.

3. Insult to Injury
Raising doubts about the relationship between onsite and off-site TCE findings and responsibility is defensive posturing and disappointing. Sadly, it occurred again at the public hearing last Tuesday (after this article and previous comments were posted) when Stanford’s representative cast doubt on the validity of the residents' testing and study, while neither mentioning sources or specifics.

4. Conclusion
I can do no better than Maggie’s last paragraph.

2 people like this
Posted by Bruce
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 4, 2016 at 9:37 am

The National Research Council (NRC) concluded that there is "limited/suggestive evidence of an association" between exposure to trichloroethylene and risk of kidney cancer and "inadequate/insufficient evidence to determine whether an association exists" between exposure to trichloroethylene and risk of cancer at other sites.

This is a very weak support for the concept that TCE is dangerous to people.

This is hardly a reason to get alarmed about TCE. I think Stanford should be given the green light to continue with its project.

11 people like this
Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 4, 2016 at 9:37 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

Kindly provide specific links or citations to the NRC conclusions you are referring to.
EPA classifies TCE as a carcinogen by all pathways.
-Fred Balin

2 people like this
Posted by Bruce
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 5, 2016 at 6:32 am

NRC reference:

Web Link

(look under trichloroethylene and cancer section)

The NRC is the most comprehensive and objective agency available. It is less prone to political influence, unlike the EPA.

31 people like this
Posted by Baloney
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2016 at 8:30 am

I am sorry, Bruce, but you are mistaken. I am one of those women who miscarried grossly malformed babies in the early 80s as a result of drinking and bathing in Great Oaks Water--which had been contaminated by an ever-growing plume from the old Fairchild-Minolta plant in South San Jose.

We bought our first house in the Santa Teresa area of San Jose in late 1980. At that time, there were so laws requiring disclosure of dangerous situations or problems by the previous owner or real estate company. Besides, the house was less than five years old! The price was right, we were gainfully employed, and had a great mortgage rate through FHA.

What a mistake! We lived there only a few months when neighbors told us about a childhood cancer/leukemia cluster in the neighborhood. There was one neighbor on our block who gave birth to a baby with anencephaly three years previously: the back of the skull was open, and there was no brain inside! A thorough genetic work up had revealed nothing in either paren'ts background. The second child was born with spina bifida that required several surgeries to close, and he was never able to walk.

By 1982, I had suffered not one, but TWO "molar" pregnancies--in which the fetus stopped developing as a child and began to form as a mass of cells that has no life. This is a very rare condition caused by things like TCE and Dioxin poisoning. My obsterician sent ME for genetic counseling. At that same time, the SJ Mercury reported on findings in all of the neighborhoods served by Great Oaks Water Company: all the groundwater they supplied us with had been contaminated by Fairchild and Minolta, and TCE had been used in huge quantities in the electronics industry to clean equipment, as well as products.

We immediately started having Alhambra water delivered, and outfitted every faucet--even outdoors ones--with water filters. Our geneticist at Kaiser Santa Teresa was seeing a lot of weird anomalies consistent with Dioxin or TCE poisoning--we were also suffering rashes and other skin issues that our dermatologist couldn't solve-- and were told we should cut our losses and move.

Unfortunately, we owed more on the house than it was worth, because word had gotten out about Santa Teresa and TCE! My father helped us obtain a lawyer, and eventually we were able to become part of class action lawsuits against Fairchild, Minolta, and Great Oaks Water. In the meantime, we moved out of the house and began renting in Cambrian Park. WQe were overwhelmed with rent payments plus mortgage payments. We kept in touch with neighbors, though, and their ills were multiplying: cancers, cirrhosis of the liver (in tee-totaling Seventh Day Adventists!), deformed puppies and kittens, etc.

To make a VERY long story short, as part of the settlement of the class action suit, Great Oaks and Minolts-Fairchild were required to buy and pay off the mortgages of the affected households, as well as pay medical bills, penalties, legal fees, etc. We were able to buy a house inPalo Alto by the mid-nineties when all the dust had settled. The area we once did lived in became a Superfund Site.

However, by then, we were old enough, and damaged enough by the toxins, that we decided against having children the old-fashioned way, and adopted a seven-year old child. In the meantime I have suffered with chemical allergies and a bout with colon cancer--all caught early because I am screened frequently due to our history with TCE.

Bruce, any geneticist or epidemiologist will tell you you are wildly erroneous in you thoughts that TCE is harmless! We know from our own experience as well as those of our old friends, many of whom have now passed on due to TCE-related illnesses.

27 people like this
Posted by Baloney
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2016 at 8:59 am

Incidentally, TCE had an earlier incarnation in the printing industry. This is something we learned from an oncologist.

TCE was popularly known as "type wash" and "cleaning solvent", because it was very effective at removing sticky black ink as well as any oil from printing equipment. Many printers, prior to the late 1980s, developed skin cancer, melanoma, cancer of the liver or cirrhosis of the liver, and/or lung cancer from not just absorbing TCE through the skin, but also inhaling the fumes of it, as apparently it is very volatile.

Like this comment
Posted by Bruce
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 5, 2016 at 12:57 pm


As sad as your story is, it is not a basis to make a scientific decision. What does the NRC have to say about your conditions that you believe are due to TCE?

As a matter of interest, TCE used to be used as anesthetic for pain during surgery and childbirth, among its many other uses. It was considered to be a miracle drug way back then. Of course this has nothing to say about its toxicity in a more general context.

The bottom line is that the Stanford decision should not be based, in any way, on your personal story, without scientific backup.

22 people like this
Posted by @Bruce
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 5, 2016 at 1:08 pm

@Bruce is a registered user.

The US Government , the EPA, the CDC, and the AMA are all aware of, and have verified the toxicity of TCE.

The semiconductor industry used it extensively, and at one point in Silicon Valley Chip History, much of Sunnyvale was contaminated by it. You an even check it out with the Computer History Museum and the Chip History Museum ( located @ VLSI Research, Inc).

There was also a British documentary made about the Great Oaks/Fairchild/Minolta TCE scandal of the 1970s and 80s. It it still available through KQED TV.

14 people like this
Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 5, 2016 at 7:20 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

Bruce wrote:

"NRC reference:
Web Link
(look under trichloroethylene and cancer section)”

Thank you for the reference.

The link is to a 2014 Public Health Statement from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the Center Disease Control and in the section “Trichloroethylene and cancer” the wording you quote does indeed appear, i.e., "The National Research Council (NRC) concluded that there is “limited/suggestive evidence of an association” between exposure to trichloroethylene and risk of kidney cancer and “inadequate/insufficient evidence to determine whether an association exists” between exposure to trichloroethylene and risk of cancer at other sites.”

However, it is preceded by the following sections with different conclusions:

"There is strong evidence that trichloroethylene can cause kidney cancer in people and some evidence that it causes liver cancer and malignant lymphoma (a blood cancer). Lifetime exposure to trichloroethylene resulted in increased liver cancer in mice and increased kidney cancer in rats at relatively high exposure levels. There is some evidence for trichloroethylene-induced testicular cancer and leukemia in rats and lymphomas and lung tumors in mice.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the EPA determined that there is convincing evidence that trichloroethylene exposure can cause kidney cancer in humans. IARC considers trichloroethylene to be a multisite carcinogen (liver, kidney, lung, testes, and blood-producing system) in rats and mice by inhalation and oral exposure routes. Trichloroethylene is listed in the 13th Report on Carcinogens (RoC) as reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) is actively reviewing trichlorochloroethylene for possible change in listing status for the 14th RoC (Web Link).”

Your use of information in this document is highly selective and view of NRC preeminence in this area, highly subjective.

Like this comment
Posted by Bruce
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 6, 2016 at 10:02 am

The NRC is currently administered jointly by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), and its work is overseen by a Governing Board and an Executive Committee. NRC volunteers are drawn from the councils of the NAS, NAE, and NAM, as well as the wider scientific population. The members of its committees are chosen for their special competences and with regard for appropriate balance and serve pro bono. All NRC reports go through an extensive external review facilitated by the NRC internal Report Review Committee (also consisting of members from the NAS, NAE, and NAM). (from Wikipedia)

I respect them as a source on various scientific issues. They are structured to resist political pressure, unlike the EPA.

If the NRC comes out with a report that TCE, at levels present in the underground plume in discussion here, is a significant human hazard I will definitely pay close attention to it. Until then I favor giving the green light to the Stanford project. This project has been opposed from the beginning by various activists, and the TCE scare is just one more tactic.

8 people like this
Posted by @Bruce
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 6, 2016 at 7:59 pm

@Bruce is a registered user.

Check it out: Geneticists agree--TCE messes up the DNA in mammals, egg layers, even plants.

Get with the are sounding like Fairchild back in the 1980s!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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