Ventilation systems are being installed by the state in three homes in Baltimore's Westport neighborhood, according to state officials, after tests found toxic vapors seeping into the dwellings from long-abandoned industrial sites nearby that had been the focus of an emergency hazardous-waste cleanup decades ago.
In addition, said James Carroll of the Maryland Department of the Environment, efforts are under way to treat potentially cancer-causing solvents in the ground water beneath the former Chemical Metals Industries sites, which officials believe are the source of the vapors getting into homes.
State and federal officials met Tuesday night with residents and community leaders to explain their response to the problem. Residents complained after the meeting that they had been unaware of the lingering contamination until it was reported last week in the Baltimore City Paper.
"This is the first I've heard of it, and I've been volunteering in the community for 15 years," said Linda Towe, executive director of Project TOOUR, a nonprofit group working to revitalize the neighborhood.
Carroll said that MDE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been investigating the extent of the toxic fumes since 2003, when "airborne contaminants" were detected in a building in the 2100 block of Annapolis Road that was used as a field office by the state environment agency. The property was one of two a block apart that had been used by the metal reclamation business, and where toxic metals and solvents were used, stored and dumped in the 1970s. More than 1,500 decaying metal drums and vast quantities of liquid and solid hazardous wastes were removed in 1981, in the first emergency cleanup in the nation conducted under the federal Superfund law.
State officials attributed the length of the investigation to the difficulty getting owners' permission to test for vapors at the 20 rowhouses in the block between the industrial sites. Early testing also did not reveal alarmingly high vapor levels, they said.
Four homes have elevated levels of the cleaning solvents trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene. The concentrations could increase a person's chances of getting cancer if exposed for a lifetime, so the state has offered to install "vapor mitigation systems." One homeowner has refused.
A contractor is treating the solvents at the site, where MDE has an office. .