Vapor Intrusion: The Political Ecology of an Emerging Environmental Health Concern

Article excerpt

This article explores the role of ethnography and political ecology theory amid an emerging environmental public health debate: vapor intrusion. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines vapor intrusion as the migration of volatile organic compounds from a contaminated groundwater source into overlying buildings. Like many other environmental health risks, vapor intrusion debates invoke particular socioenvironmental politics and expose complex and variegated negotiations with science, expertise, and policy. First, I expose the perceptions and experiences of scientists and regulators engaged in contemporary vapor intrusion (VI) debates. Next, I draw on ethnographic data from a community case study of residents' struggles and understandings of vapor intrusion and public health risk at an industrial hazardous waste site in Endicott, New York. This is followed by a discussion of the value of the political ecology of health perspective and its potential for informing yet another emerging environmental health problem.

Key words: vapor intrusion, environmental health, political ecology of health

It goes beyond the health exposure. There are subtle but real life changes that have occurred here. Whether or not you end up with cancer, your quality of life suffers and changes as long as you live here.

- Resident of the IBM-Endicott Toxic Plume, Endicott, New York


Vapor intrusion occurs when toxic volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) from contaminated soil and groundwater vaporize and rise through gaps or pores in soil and foundations into homes and other buildings. A national effort spearheaded by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to better understand and revisit sites with a potential for vapor intrusion has been underway since the late 1990s, when the potential for significant human exposure was first recognized. I first learned about vapor intrusion (VI) in 2002 while living in Endicott, New York, birthplace of International Business Machines (IBM) and the site of a contentious EPA Superfund site, which has become a "poster child" community for vapor intrusion. I attended a public meeting on VI and learned that a chemical spill from the former IBM plant had released a plume of chlorinated volatile organic compounds (CVOCs) into a residential area spanning nearly 300 acres. The main contaminant of concern is trichloroethylene (TCE), a known cancer-causing toxic substance that has recently been determined by numerous epidemiological studies to be "carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure and poses a potential human health hazard for noncancer toxicity to the central nervous system, kidney, liver, immune system, male reproductive system, and the developing embryo/fetus" (Chiu et al. 2013:303).

Although the environmental health risks of TCE exposure was initially said to be low, it required the serious attention of county, state, and federal health agencies. Witnessing agency responses to the TCE vapor intrusion threat, I quickly learned that VI was an elusive and emerging environmental public health problem based on the complex science of an exposure pathway that was difficult for both citizens and scientists to fully understand and act on. This confusion was my introduction to the "political ecology of health" (Baer 1996; Baer and Singer 2009; Baer, Singer, and Susser 1 997; Harper 2004) in general and the political ecology of vapor intrusion risk in particular. As defined here, the political ecology of health is a critical theory of environmental health problems that attends to the intersecting politics of risk science and uncertainty and the lived experience of "toxic frustration" (Singer 2011).

In this article, I explain the history of vapor intrusion as a public health problem and engage some of the critical features of VI science, including what a VI site characterization constitutes and the expertise dominating the "management" of current VI sites. …