Every Tuesday and Wednesday from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., the Lake Highland Marching Band students practice on the O’Meara Sportsplex softball field. When the weather is dry, dust fills the air and covers the soles of our shoes; when it is wet, water soaks our socks and tickles our feet, causing many laughs and a few complaints. For me, these laughs turned to concern when I read an article in the Orlando Sentinel that said that the softball field I marched on was being considered for Superfund site designation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because of a chemical called trichloroethylene (TCE)! (Orlando Sentinel, October 2008) I was concerned for my safety—as was my family. I wondered, is the amount of trichloroethylene I am exposed to while marching on the O’Meara Sportsplex softball field enough to harm me?
To start my project, I contacted the Lake Highland Middle School director, Mr. Bernatavitz, to get permission to do my project. Mr. Bernatavitz contacted our school’s administration. I was given permission to research the state of the field as long as any samples I took were no deeper than 31 cm. I used the Internet to do research on TCE and discovered many disturbing things it can do to your health. I found that exposure to TCE can increase your risk for cancer and harm your liver, kidneys, respiratory system, nervous system, and sight. It can also cause dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and changes in neurological behavior (Navy Environmental Health Center).
I continued by researching the physical characteristics of TCE. TCE is a clear, sweet-smelling chemical that vaporizes very easily. I found out that TCE is used commercially as a degreaser in the cleaning and drying of electric parts, as a means of flushing liquid oxygen systems, as a refrigerant and heat-exchange liquid, and as a cleaning agent in textile processing (dry cleaning). It is found in laundry detergent, paint removers, spot removers, glue solvents, and other cleaning products (EPA). A more common use today is in correction fluid. Because TCE is so volatile, it helps the correction fluid dry faster.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the permissible exposure limit for TCE is 100 parts per million (ppm) in an eight-hour, time-weighted average (TWA). Also, exposures (any type of exposure, whether inhaled or absorbed through contact with the skin) shall not exceed 200 ppm. If exposure is 300 ppm, it is only safe to be in the given area for a single time period of five minutes in two hours (OSHA, 2005).
Now that I had some basic information, I contacted a construction engineer, my uncle John. He was able to find an old EPA Record of Decision on the land of the O’Meara Sportsplex. This report led me to believe that the TCE was located farther down in the soil than I was permitted to take samples (Figure A).
To continue, I sent an e-mail explaining my project to Laura Hellinger, a project manager at Macintosh Associates, Inc., a local site-development firm. To my great joy, she replied to my e-mail, explaining that Jim Nugent, a professional engineer, could help me. I sent him an e-mail asking about TCE and how to test for it. He spent a lot of time answering my questions via e-mail. These answers helped me understand how and where to take my samples.
Unfortunately, the local lab Mr. Nugent recommended was unable to help students with science projects this year. The next lab I contacted, on the recommendation of Randy Mejeur, an environmental engineer from my church, was the University of Florida (UF) lab in Gainesville, Florida. I talked to a very nice and helpful person named Chelsea, the secretary. She referred me to a man named Brian Peterson, who, after doing some research, found that his lab did not have the chemicals necessary to test for TCE. He referred me to the UF lab on the main campus. I immediately called the lab, and the secretary referred me to Mr. Brucat. I e-mailed Mr. Brucat about the project, and he contacted a man named Harvey McKenzie in New Jersey. Mr. McKenzie e-mailed me and explained that instead of taking soil samples, I should do a soil gas survey, and he included instructions on how to conduct the survey. (Whew!)
Mr. McKenzie explained that the easiest way to do a soil gas survey was with a machine called a photo ionization detector (PID). “A PID is essentially a gas chromatograph without a separation column, and therefore a PID can provide excellent accuracy” (Wren). A PID works by sending out ultraviolet light that breaks down chemicals into positive and negative ions that are easy to measure (Wren). A PID cannot look for a specific chemical, though. Instead, it measures all the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air it samples using a built-in pump, which means the PID cannot just measure the amount of TCE. A PID shows its readings in parts per million (ppm). Mr. McKenzie recommended the MiniRAE 2000 PID because it is one of the easiest to use.
After completing my research, I hypothesized that the amount of TCE I am exposed to at the O’Meara Sportsplex is not enough to cause me harm.
I will rent a MiniRAE 2000 PID and use it to test the amount of VOCs at the O’Meara Sportsplex softball field where the band has marching practice. Before I go to the field, I will learn to use the PID by testing the soil at my house. Later, I will compare the level of VOCs at my house to the levels at the field. I will use flags to mark a grid, using six-meter spacing. At each flag, I will use a reinforced bar and hammer to make a two-inch-deep hole. After I create each hole, I will immediately insert the PID and measure the VOCs for 30 seconds (Figure B). I will record the lowest and highest readings of VOCs observed, and I will then compare the readings of VOCs to the guidelines stated by OSHA. If the amount of all VOCs is lower than the safe levels for TCE, then I can assume that the levels of TCE are safe.
Conducting The Project
After I read about the MiniRAE 2000 PID, I contacted GeoTech Inc., a company that lets you rent PIDs, and I rented the MiniRAE 2000 PID for one weekend. When the PID arrived, I did some fun little tests to make sure the PID was working. For example, the air in my kitchen showed less than 5 ppm. I tested gasoline in the garage, and the PID showed 170 ppm. Lastly, I tested correction fluid, which is also known to have VOCs. The MiniRAE 2000 PID measured over 300 ppm of VOCs in the air immediately above the correction fluid! I knew it was working. Then my Dad took me to Home Depot and we bought rebar, a long measuring tape, and orange flags.
We took the equipment home, and I learned how to use the PID some more. After some more tests, I found that if the PID’s surroundings changed dramatically in
temperature—going from air conditioning to outside—the readings would get high, and it would say it needed to be cleaned. Also, if I got any dirt in the PID’s nozzle, it would block the pump and set off an alarm, so I made sure to be careful not to touch the soil I was testing.
When I felt confident using the PID, I tested my yard for VOCs as a control. I found the following amount of VOCs at our house (Table A):
After I took the tests at my house, my dad and I got in the car and went to the O’Meara Sportsplex. I wanted to take the readings around 3 p.m. because I had read that TCE levels can change throughout the day, and I wanted to make sure that the levels I found would represent the amount that I was exposed to during marching band practice. I went into the field and set up a grid on the grass using six-meter spacing (Figure C).
It was slightly windy and very sunny. I continued the project as stated in the procedure. I found the following (Table B):
If you look at the average of both the minimum and maximum levels of the tests, you can see that the amount of VOCs at the O’Meara Sportsplex field falls short of OSHA’s toxicity levels for TCE.
To get an overall view of the level of contamination at the O’Meara Sportsplex, I took two other tests in areas spread out across the Sportsplex (Figure D). The old railroad tracks (Table C) had, surprisingly, the same levels as on the marching field. The next test I took was in an old parking lot near the football field. Because I had never gone there before, I was surprised to find four monitoring wells! Mr. Hellinger had told me to look for these! He said that if the wells are there, it means that the area’s toxicity levels are being monitored. I tested the levels at the monitoring wells (Table C) and again was surprised to find that the levels were very consistent with the levels at the softball field and railroad tracks. (I took this test at 15 cm instead of 5 cm to see if the levels would change.)
After testing for TCE in the marching field, I found that although the field has small levels of volatile organic compounds, they are not high enough to cause any health risks. Also, the air had no contamination at all, and breathing is the most common way of receiving exposure to TCE.
I was lucky to find that the field is being monitored by wells that help measure the chemicals at deeper levels. If I do this project again, I would like to do a more thorough investigation of the soil deeper in the ground and closer to the lake. (The EPA report showed that the TCE moving toward the lake.) Also, I would try to make my tests more specific to TCE and more sealed if I use a PID again. A worry I have is that some of the clean air got into my testing holes and mixed with the contaminated air.
For now, I believe my testing has confirmed my hypothesis that the amount of TCE at the marching field is not enough to cause a health threat to me or my fellow students.
“Consumer Factsheet on Trichloroethylene.” Environmental Protection Agency. Ground Water and Drinking Water. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 8 October 2008. http://www.epa.gov/OGWD//dwh/t-voc/trichlor.html.
“Getting a Grip on Brownfields.” Neaville, Florida: Ninth Annual Statewide Brownfields Conference. 26 October 2006. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 19 November 2008. http://proceedings.swix.ws/2007_11_07_brownfields/contend/pdf/neaville.pdf.
Hellinger, Laura. Telephone interview. 30 October 2008.
Hellinger, Susan, project manager at Macintosh Associates, and John Hellinger, construction engineer. Telephone interview. 30 October 2008.
Nugent, Jim, engineer. E-mail interview. 13 November 2008.
“Record of Decision—Former Spellman Engineering.” Environmental Protection Agency. Superfund Site Records of Decision. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 30 October 2008. http://www.epa.gov/superfund/sites/rods/fulltext/r0404660.pdf
“Risk Assessment Information System.” U.S. Dept. of Energy. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 13 October 2008. http://rais.ornl.gov/tox/profiles/trichloroethene__v1.shtml
Spear, Kevin, and Mark Schlueb. “Orlando, the ‘City Beautiful,’ Weighs Paying to Clean Up Toxic Mess.” Orlando Sentinel 4 October 2008.
“TCE and PCE Remediation.” Idaho Geological Survey. 7 July 1999. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 8 October 2008. http://www.idahogeology.org/services/hydroeology/portnuefgroundwaterguardian/my_drinking_water/tce_remed/tce_text/whatis_tce.html
“Trichloroethelene in indoor and outdoor air.” New York State Health Department. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 8 October 2008. www.health.state.ny.us/environmental/investigations/soil_gas/sui_quidance/fs_tee.htm
More About This Resource...
Supplement a study of Earth science with an activity drawn from this winning student essay.
- Ask students what they know about the chemicals used in heavy duty cleaners? What hazards can they introduce to the environment?
- Send students to this online article, or print copies of the essay for them to read.
- Working individually or in small groups, have students research TCE and what products it is used in.
OriginYoung Naturalist Awards
SubtopicTools and Methods