Vapor Intrusion. Is Your Family At Risk?


Site of 2017 vapor intrusion on Madison SE.

When discussing the environmental dangers that could affect a family within the home setting many images come to mind. However, few are aware of one particular danger that is becoming more and more prevalent within our Michigan communities, vapor intrusion. This hazard is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as vapor-forming chemicals migrating up into overlying homes or businesses from contaminated soil or groundwater. These dangerous chemicals come from sources such as “former gas stations, bus stations, dry cleaning and laundering facilities, automotive repair shops, and other sites where petroleum products or solvents were stored, handled, or transferred and had the potential to be spilled” (EPA). This means that even if your home’s location no longer has one of these businesses nearby, contaminants spilt from those businesses in the past can still affect your home now.

An interview was conducted with the Community Liaison at LINC Up, Montel Pierre.  He described an example of how vapor intrusion can happen. Pierre explained what happened in one location where a dry cleaners was located on Hall Street east of Madison in Grand Rapids. "The guy dumped his chemicals outside. During that time businesses were not responsible for the environmental clean up of the property," said Pierre. The chemicals that drained into the soil outside came in contact with groundwater and then became a harmful vapor. This source of contamination is still effecting the local areas. The Red Project, Seeds of Promise, and two families who were renting the apartments in an adjacent buulding had to  evacuate their buildings due to danger of vapor intrusion. Read more on this event here.

Just recently, a second location a few blocks away was identified with high levels of vapor intrusion. It is currently under investigation and information on this location will be available soon.

Health Impact

Negative impacts on cognitive and motor functions, several types of cancer, liver damage, kidney damage, and effects on the immune system are all possibilities of health problems that can be caused by vapor intrusion (Cernansky, 2016). This list does not contain every possible health issue that can be caused by vapor intrusion. There are several more, and as more research is being completed on this issue, more negative impacts are being discovered.

A Community Problem

Vapor intrusion is a problem that is becoming more and more prevalent within Grand Rapids. The more society learns about how to identify it, the more readily locations can be identified. In an interview with LINC Up’s Montel Pierre, we found out that even popular places such as Founders Brewing Co. are located near properties where high levels of vapor need to be dealt with. However, not everyone can afford such an expense and an even larger amount of individuals do not even know what vapor intrusion is or what harm it can cause. Right now, the solution to rid areas of vapor intrusion involve a costly pumping system to mitigate the vapor. 

Location of original contamination
(new building in the photo has a vapor barrier and is safe).

When it comes to who is affected by vapor intrusion, certain communities have been found to be more at risk of exposure than others. As stated before, poverty is one aspect that hinders many vapor intrusion locations from being fixed. Families whose income barely pays enough for them to buy food and housing cannot afford the costly solutions for vapor intrusion. This means that some areas, such as southeast Grand Rapids, have been left untreated for years allowing the intrusion to form what is known as a vapor plume. Currently, the vapor plume located between 413 Hall and Euclid Avenue in Grand Rapids is “one of the larger vapor plumes in the United States” Pierre stated. It affects the entire community not just a location or two. This plume also makes cleaning up the vapor a much more intensive and laborious process and as said before, poorer communities cannot afford a clean up of this size on their own.

The source of this giant vapor plume came from a former dry cleaner’s operation that use to dump its chemicals into the soil out back. Incidents such as these were a normal occurrence until the creation of the Brownfields Program in 1995. This program began holding business owners responsible for the environmental condition of a property upon leaving the location. This has helped reduce the sources of vapor intrusion substantially since then. However, vapor from sites that do not adhere to this program or businesses from before 1995 still have to be dealt with.

Vapor as a Healthy Housing Issue

One of the Healthy Homes Coalition’s main objectives is to assist families with creating safe home environments for children and to prevent them from being exposed to those factors which could be harmful to their development. Vapor intrusion is the contamination of a home’s air quality; therefore, reducing vapor intrusion would directly help children and adults live healthier lives.

The Healthy Homes Coalition is located only two minutes away from the vapor plume discussed earlier. Being so physically close allows Healthy Homes to engage the community and assist in educating the public on vapor intrusion. The organization also realizes that, if not resolved, the issue could affect other homes nearby or even the Healthy Home Coalition's offices in the future. A solution must be found and Healthy Homes is just one of the organizations working toward a cleaner environment.

Neighbors Helping Neighbors

Part of the solution for vapor intrusion can be found in the education of our neighbors on the topic. Pierre spoke on how communities need to become engaged if this problem is ever going to be resolved. “Spread the word. Word of mouth. We know through history where word of mouth is the best form of advertisement you can have,” Pierre said. He explained that if one individual talks about the issue to a friend, the friend is more likely to believe it because they already have a strong, trusting relationship with that individual. Through this method, more neighborhoods will become aware of the rising issue and be able to confront it more readily.

Map of Madison and Hall vapor intrusion area of concern.

Pierre also discussed the differences between communities in that focus on social justice issues and those that do not. In the case of Grand Rapids’ southeast side, the neighborhoods have more minority households living in poverty. Therefore, when it comes to choosing which issues to be address, neighbors often choose issues where they can see change happening. For example, they may be interested in going to a city meeting to discuss how the police force functions in their neighborhoods but they do not care about vapor intrusion because it is an invisible harm. This is a difficult hurdle for organizations wishing to stop vapor intrusion. While other topics are taking precedence in our communities, education must be a part of the solution. By introducing knowledge about vapor intrusion, organizations empower communities to push for change.

Speaking out for Justice

When something becomes a social justice issue and the community challenges the norms, change begins to take place. In Flint, lead poisoning has been a historical problem, but it was not until communities learned of the disaster invading their homes through their water and then pushed back in outrage that change began to truly take shape. Communities cannot afford to wait until a disaster happens in order to become informed and start caring. Organizations can spread information on vapor intrusion and avoid future tragedies.

Vapor intrusion is a serious danger to our communities. With the multitude of health issues that it can cause, immediate action is a necessity. Neighborhoods must be educated on what vapor intrusion is and how it can affect their own families or local businesses. Once communities become involved, there will be a far greater chance that the attention of policymakers and government officials will be captured. Change will then be propelled forward; not just to find other solutions to vapor intrusion, but also find more cost-effective ways to manage it and how to assist in vapor mitigation for neighborhoods where children are growing up in poverty.