RICHMOND, Va. -- At least a dozen residents in Richmond’s Fan District say they have been overcome by fumes from work being done to rehabilitate the city’s sewer system.
“Just opening the door to come down here in the basement was like getting hit in the face with it,” described Fan resident Aurie Barnes.
“It really would be like putting your head in a can of rubber cement. It’s sort of that headache, get a kind of woozy feeling,” she added.
A couple blocks away at Shields market, employees like Lindsay Hawk described the same strong odor and symptoms.
“It just gave us sort of a light-headed feeling,” said Hawk. “It really would hit you as soon as you walk in the front door. The inside was sort of thick with this intense smell. It was really unpleasant.”
“We want people coming into our businesses feeling safe and welcomed. We don’t want them to come in like 'Where is the smell coming from? Is my health at risk?'” Hawks added.
The city is restoring old sewer pipes with a method known as “cured in place pipe” or CIPP.
The commonly used process, that’s been around since the 1970’s, relines old pipes from the inside with a styrene or a chemical resin fabric tube that is then cured into a new plastic pipe through either steam, hot water or ultra-violet light.
It is both cheaper and faster than the traditional method of digging trenches to replace pipes and the City of Richmond says it’s been using the process for more than 20 years.
However, the week of April 16, Richmond Councilwoman Kim Gray says she received emails from concerned constituents about the work making people ill.
“We have gotten what I consider an alarming amount of complaints,” said Gray.
On April 19, Gray visited Joe’s Inn restaurant and Shields Market off North Shields Avenue.
“I went into the business that was impacted and smelled it myself and really grew ill from being in the air there,” said Gray. “An employee began vomiting after breathing too much of the odor in.”
Gray immediately reached out to the Departments of Health and Public Utilities as did CBS 6. A health inspector was dispatched to Joe’s Inn April 20, to investigate.
CBS 6 inquired, what, if any recommendations were made by the inspector after visiting Joe’s Inn.
In a statement to CBS 6, the Richmond City Health District wrote:
“Our environmental health specialist/food safety inspector says they recommended that the restaurant contact DPU to address the odor concerns. The inspector said the odor was not being produced as a result of something the restaurant was doing or causing, therefore, other than increasing ventilation, the issue would need to be presented to DPU for assistance,” said Richmond City Health District spokesperson George Jones.
“Upon becoming aware of complaints to DPU about the pipe-lining process, the Richmond City Health District referred DPU to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) Office of Environmental Epidemiology for information about the CIPP process; they produced a fact sheet (FAQ) for use by DPU to help communicate to residents. In addition, Richmond City Health District worked cooperatively with DPU to create an algorithm for action and response to styrene vapors during the pipe relining process.”
Though the Freedom of Information Act, CBS 6 obtained the “Response to Styrene in Indoor Air after Cured-in-Place is Installed” flow sheet that the Richmond Health Department prepared for DPU to help communicate with residents.
Residents we spoke with say, they've been experiencing the odors since the fall of 2015 but they tell us the fumes suddenly got worse in April 2018.
CBS 6 took the concerns to VCU toxicologist and director of the Virginia Poison Center, doctor Ruddy Rose.
“The first thing is always to stop the exposure," said Dr. Rose. “When enough people have similar complaints someone needs to investigate.”
Following the April work that generated complaints, CIPP installation did not resume until May 2. However, in an email to city leaders, DPU said the break was due to the weather and the need for additional equipment.
“The City of Richmond Department put out extensive information in the area to each resident PRIOR to the most recent sewer lining project conducted on May 2, 2018. This was done in the form of a hard copy newsletter distributed door to door, posted on the Nextdoor application for that neighborhood, as well as posted on DPU’s blog and twitter platforms," said DPU spokesperson Angela Fountain. "Contact information was given for Public Utilities, a representative from the Virginia Health Department and the Project Manager should any of the residents have questions. We received no complaints. Residents were encouraged to reach out to us if they had any issues.”
“The Health Department also provided data on levels and exposure durations,” stated Fountain.
DPU distributed a flyer to residents warning they may “notice strong ‘plastic’ or ‘adhesive’ type odors” during CIPP work. The flyer goes on to say, “These are byproducts of the materials curing process and are not harmful.”
“If you smell something that doesn’t necessarily mean you are getting sick. Odor is one thing, illness is another,” explained Dr. Rose.
“This is a chemical [Styrene] that is all about the concentration and how long you are exposed.”
“How is it classified?” asked WTVR reporter Laura French.
“It’s not been classified as a carcinogen, but it’s on a list where it’s likely it could be,” said Dr. Rose.
The Virginia Department of Health’s frequently asked questions (FAQ) sheet about styrene explains what the chemical is, what CIPP is and how styrene can affect one’s health. It also warns a “drawback of CIPP is styrene vapors” that “can rise out of sewer pipes and into residences."
“There are a lot of things that can come through sewers. So, it may be a rush to judgment to say that it’s styrene at all or that styrene could just be a part of it,” said Dr. Rose.
The Barnes family decided they weren't going to take any chances when the fumes got to be too much last month.
They plugged up their drain as the city recommended, but took their 13-month daughter Ashton to a friend’s house.
“She’s so little and you worry about the chemicals and how they are affecting her. She can’t tell us,” said Barnes.
“Dr. Rose, should these residents be concerned?” asked French.
“It is cause for concern,” said Dr. Rose. “That’s pretty bad when reasonable people are doing that [leaving their homes]. That should tell you there’s a problem that needs to be addressed. That’s not normal,” said Rose.
“With this process, we are using people’s homes and buildings as chemical fume hoods,” said Purdue University Assistant Professor Dr. Andrew Whelton. “We’re telling them to increase their fans so that we get more of it out. “I think that’s unacceptable.'”
In a study published last summer, the environmental and engineering expert and his research team, conducted testing at multiple CIPP installations in Indiana and California, and found that the process can, "expose workers and the public to a mixture of compounds that can pose potential health hazards."
“Nobody should really be exposed to this unknown undescribed material without understanding the risks that’s one of the issues,” said Dr. Whelton.
Whelton's research, was almost immediately challenged by industry leaders.
The National Association of Sewer Service Companies (NASSCO) said it was clear that their guidelines, quality and safety protocols were not utilized during the testing, and accused the researchers of not fact checking their information and assumptions.
But, NASSCO did acknowledge it was concerned that Whelton's team had found "certain other organic chemicals in the steam exhaust" at the CIPP installations, and they vowed to investigate.
CBS 6 reached out to NASSCO for comment on their response to Dr. Whelton’s research. NASSCO spokesperson Sheila Joy sent CBS 6 a statement:
“Safety is of critical importance to our organization, so NASSCO is currently working with institutions of higher learning and other testing facilities to validate (or invalidate) reports such as the one you reference by Purdue University.
Phase 1 of our study included a thorough review of Purdue’s findings, as well as other published reports. An RFP to conduct the study was submitted to a number of universities and awarded to the University of Texas at Arlington. Launched in December, 2017 the study was just recently published and found that CIPP reports on chemical emissions of styrenated resin (including the Purdue Report you reference) are non-conclusive.
NASSCO recently published a second RFP for Phase 2of the study and will award a contract this summer to test a number of physical sites using the CIPP process.”
Whelton admitted that there is a lot that is still unknown about the aftereffects of CIPP, but says his study has convinced him that more research is needed and immediate safeguards should be put into place.
“What is your recommendation to the Virginia Department of Health and to the utility?” asked French.
“We have made recommendations that all emissions should be captured until further notice because there is no evidence that we’ve seen that’s credible that indicated that the emissions are in fact safe and they do not exceed worker or public health exposure limits,” said Whelton.
Whelton says in addition to capturing emissions, CIPP contractors can dispose of them and treat them.
“They have equipment that captures those emissions, sometimes destroys them in place,” said Dr. Whelton. “So, the same concept they apply indoors for workers safety, they should be applying outdoors for workers safety and public safety.”
CBS 6 obtained communications between Richmond’s Department of Public Utilities and councilwoman Gray’s office after Gray received emails from concerned constituents.
In an email dated April 25, DPU’s interim director Rosemary Green states, that “no monitoring equipment was used in past installations,” but a "plan" was being prepared for future linings.
Two days later, Green said the contractor has taken additional steps to manage odors, due to a "higher than normal" number of complaints.
“They will have more fans and will be placing them in strategic locations around the work zone. We have also been in communications with the Richmond City Health District to ensure that should there be further questions about the chemicals used, they are prepared to respond. And we have expanded our communications with residents for several blocks adjacent to the block where the actual pipe is being lined so that residents can take the steps provided on the back of this notification to ensure that their sewer traps are functioning properly to prevent odors from entering their homes. Our inspectors, provided by Jacobs Engineering, who are monitoring the work of our contractor, have also been talking to residents in the neighborhood to explain the planned work.”
Three days after that, Green advised, city inspectors have “meters for use where needed.”
In a statement to CBS 6 on May 7, DPU spokesperson Angela Fountain stated, “We had and have testing equipment ready should anyone bring it to our attention that they are experiencing challenges. DPU engineers and project managers walked the area during the May 2, 2018 installation – the entire work zone and the surrounding block to ensure that there were no issues.”
“What we would recommend is that air testing should be conducted at all sites,” said Dr. Whelton. “But it shouldn’t be conducted to determine if someone was overexposed. Air testing should be conducted to determine that nothing leaked out of the containment system.”
As concerned employees say it has on numerous occasions at Shields market, Joe’s Inn and the surrounding neighborhood.
“Although they say this is non-toxic, it’s clearly affecting us and this is something I am worried about long-term,” said Hawk. “How is this going to affect my health? How is this going to affect the community?” she asked.
“You can’t see fumes,” said Barnes. “You can’t see how much of it is actually filling up. You’ve got to go by what you can smell and that’s the scary part.”
“We’re concerned about it, we’re worried and there’s really no way for us to know other than what the guys out front are saying,” said Barnes. “They say it smells worse than it is. Okay, you kind of have to take them at their word, but it doesn’t make you feel good about it or that it’s safe.”
“I get that this may be the most cost-effective, but we need to understand the impact long term and short term of what these smells are doing to our residents and businesses,” said Gray.
DPU declined CBS 6’s request for an on-camera interview, citing this was “not a news story.”
“We would really like the residents who have the serious concerns (or any concerns for that matter) contact the right sources. In order that accurate information is provided to them. DPU field teams communicated with the residents in the area of the work, several times before, during and after the lining work was performed. We are happy to reach out to those who contacted you to address their concerns. That’s our goal – ensure that those residents who have concerns get answers. This is not a news story, and we do not feel an on-camera interview will serve the purpose of those who have these concerns,” said DPU spokesperson Angela Fountain.
Gray’s office says DPU reports no further work is scheduled in the fan at this time, but assignments are scheduled in other parts of the city for the next several months.
Dr. Whelton says it’s up to public health officials to take the lead on this.
“The public health officials need to be involved and put their foot down, that is their job to protect public health. Here is where the public health community needs to step up and take a role in this, an active role, in making sure the emissions are safe,” said Dr. Whelton.
“Utilities are choosing these technologies because they can be 5 to 10 times less expensive so they are doing right by the taxpayer. One of the issues is, utilities are not plastics engineers so they don’t get trained on plastics manufacturing which is what this is. They don’t get trained on industrial hygiene, worker exposure, which is what this is and they don’t get trained on air transport and sewer systems which is what this is too,” Dr. Whelton added.
Whelton said he believes there is a true interest by contractors to keep workers and the public safe but he feels there’s more to be learned on how to do that.
Purdue University’s July 2017 research was funded by the National Science Foundation RAPID response grant.
The Virginia Department of Transportation is one of six state transportation agencies that funded Purdue’s latest study on the technology that was released this month and is still ongoing.
In August of 2007, the Virginia Department of Transportation suspended the use of styrene based CIPP liners that carried surface or storm water amid concerns over contamination of soil and receiving waters. After a year long study, VDOT reinstated the technology in May 2008 but implemented new requirements.
Purdue has collaborated with NIOSH, CDPH, NEHA, ISDH, EPA, ATSDR, and OSHA on chemical emissions and exposure. Researchers have also met with engineering consultants, utilities, and municipalities who have requested their assistance as well as CIPP companies.