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I-Team: State Investigating Toxic Chemical At Needham Luxury Apartment Building

NEEDHAM (CBS) - A luxury building with a sparkling pool, modern design and a fitness center, The Kendrick in Needham was the perfect home for a young professional and his pregnant wife.

"We were looking for a place to at least start our family," he said, asking us not to reveal his identity.

But last week that all abruptly changed when officials from the State Department of Environmental Protection told him air samples taken in his unit showed high levels of the toxic gas trichloroethylene, also known as TCE.

"I said this has to be a joke and the representative from the State Department of Environmental Protection said 'This is not a joke, sir. This is extremely serious.'"

"Trichloroethylene is a solvent. It's traditionally used for degreasing," explained Elizabeth Harriman, the deputy director of the Toxic Use Reduction Institute at UMass Lowell. According to Harriman, it was one of the chemicals that caused the contamination in Woburn back in the 1980s. A lawsuit surrounding that case was the subject of the movie "A Civil Action" starring John Travolta.

According to Harriman, long-term exposure has the potential to cause cancer and short-term exposures can be dangerous for pregnant women. "The developing fetus is particularly sensitive to TCE," she said.

Harriman also told the I-Team the substance is only used by a dozen or so companies in Massachusetts.

The Mass Department of Environmental Protection told the I-Team that tests they conducted found very high levels of TCE.

A spokesperson told us:

  • MassDEP received notification pursuant to 21E for an apartment building located at 275 Second Avenue in Needham.
  • Very high concentrations of TCE (> 400 ug/m3) were detected in an unoccupied apartment unit. Subsequently, MassDEP's Emergency Response (ER) unit has been taking indoor air samples in various hallways and apartment units within this very large newly constructed apartment complex.
  • Sampling conducted by MassDEP confirmed these high levels and based on samples collected from the indoor air of several occupied apartments, MassDEP determined that a vapor intrusion pathway was present and the levels of contamination is some apartments was deemed to be unsafe, exceeding Imminent Hazard (IH) levels that required immediate actions to be taken.
  • After contacting the Licensed Site Professional (LSP) for the property owner and determining that they did not have the means to immediately deploy Air Purifying Units (APUs) to these apartments, MassDEP dispatched ER staff to deploy 3 APUs in 3 apartments until the LSP could procure their own APUs.
  • It was confirmed that all impacted apartment units have operable windows and the LSP was instructed to undertake active venting to help mitigate IH conditions, along with the APUs.
  • Subsequent to this initial sampling, MassDEP has continued to sample apartments on higher floors, several of which also exceeded the IH level and required the building owner to deploy additional APUs and conduct venting of the impacted apartment units. The building owner has also temporarily relocated several tenants to other units in the building that do not have contamination present.
  • MassDEP continues to investigate the potential vapor intrusion pathway source to provide additional guidance and direction to the LSP on additional actions to take to abate these conditions.

The findings led MassDEP to put air purifying units in some of the affected apartments and building management to relocate some residents in one section of the Northern side of the building where the substance was found.

The I-Team was outside the property moments after residents heard the news. "It sounds very dangerous for babies and people in the area," said one resident who told us he has one-week old twins.

Documents obtained but I-Team show the show the state was notified about the TCE contamination as early as June 8. The resident we talked to say he didn't find out until weeks later.

"The fact that they knew that we could be potentially affected, and they didn't let us know until a few weeks later is unethical, it's criminal and it's shameful," he said.

In an email, a spokesperson for the building owner, Toll Brothers Apartment Living told us:

"The safety of our residents is our primary concern. In a small number of residences, levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) have been found above regulatory thresholds. When the condition was discovered, impacted residents and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) were immediately notified. We are working closely with MassDEP to follow all protocols to ensure that the community is safe, including continued testing throughout the community and full remediation of the issue. We will continue to keep our residents informed."

A MassDEP spokesperson told us:

"MassDEP is still investigating the potential source of contamination and all its efforts at this time are solely focused on ensuring any and all necessary actions are taken by the building owner to address this contamination issue. Once those issues have been addressed MassDEP will conduct a full and thorough investigation of this matter."

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