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Chemophobes Surviving In A World Made Of Chemicals?

This is an area outside of Darvaz in Uzbekistan. The locals call it the Door to Hell. It's the Russian equivalent of Centralia.
This is an area outside of Darvaz in Uzbekistan. The locals call it the Door to Hell. It's the Russian equivalent of Centralia.
Photo #35 by Neil Melville

Chemophobia is the irrational fear of chemicals. The word itself creates more irrational fear. Chemical fear driving those in Asheville, NC, to demand compensation for any malady deemed responsible due from perceived ground contamination from “trichloroethylene,” or “TCE”.

A mind-numbing fear has usurped many residents within one mile of the CTS site. This does not include the Writer, who lives within sight distance of where CTS used to be. Without the leaves in the winter, the remnants of the deceased CTS Site, now classified as a “RCRA Superfund,” is visible up the hill.

This fear is seemingly unchecked by the community at large, and consuming the populace anywhere near a dreaded chemical source.

CTS, based out of Elkhart, Indiana, manufactured electronics where TCE was used for plating and cleaning at the Mills Gap Road plant. In 1999, TCE was found in a spring feeding two wells next to the plant property at a level of 21,000 Parts Per Billion (ppb). Because this was more than 7,000 times North Carolina's new groundwater standard for TCE, the locals went perplexic. To date, there has been over 7 town meetings in Asheville with at least 200 people.

CTS History

Beginning in 2002, EPA issued an enforcement order, saying the CTS site was an immediate threat.

In 2006, a soil vapor extraction system installed by CTS started removing contaminants from beneath the plant.

In 2011, property owners near the former CTS file a federal lawsuit, seeking monetary damages.

In 2012, a judge in the Asheville District Court dismissed the suit, ruling the claim was barred by a North Carolina law placing a 10-year limit on lawsuits involving property.

In 2013, the Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond, Va., sided with property owners and allowed the case to proceed to trial. CTS appealed the ruling, asking the Supreme Court to dismiss the case.

Let‘s get down to brass tacks here. The SC dismissed the lawsuit after 15 years because state law says after 10, it’s “null and void.” No cancers were obtained due to any TCE groundwater contamination, and no one was injured. After 10 years, if no TCE-related problems are found, the lawsuit should be removed. But a few South Asheville residents have figured out a sure-fire way to get taxpayer bucks from the EPA. Then, a Virginia court can overrule NC courts?

The Threshold Limit Value (TLV), for TCE (Trike, Triclene, etc…) was 50 ppm in 1990. There have been no deaths, and no injuries attributed to breathing TCE at less than 50 ppm---ever. However, sampling methods have dramatically improved giving results in “Parts per Billion” (ppb). Toxicity of TCE has not changed. Only 1000x better sampling detection. And the “chemophobic“ populace has had chemical fears increased 1000x.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) estimates 9 to 34 percent of drinking water has some trichloroethylene contamination, even though all municipal water complies with the maximum contaminant level of 5 µg/L. That’s “micrograms per litre” for all those people relying on emotions rather than actual scientific evidence.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says 3.5 million workers in the U.S. are exposed to TCE. No human studies have shown any evidence TCE exposure from background concentrations increase any risk of TCE.

Until 1977, TCE was an inexpensive, nonflammable, and self-administered obstetrical anesthetic. The possibility of ingesting TCE, or long-term effects like malignancies have been raised, but scientific evidence has never shown any lethal effects due to TCE exposure. Before its ban for certain applications in 1977, TCE was an obstetric anesthetic, grain fumigant, disinfectant, pet food additive, and spice and caffeine extractant.

But concentrations of 30ppt (Parts Per Trillion) TCE in rural areas, 460ppt in suburban areas, and 1200ppt in areas nearest emission sources have increased fears. Indoor concentrations found were 140ppt in a school, to 5000ppt in an office building. TCE has been detected in 8,612 of 1,428 hazardous waste sites on the National Priorities List.

As the most frequently detected solvent in groundwater, TCE is in 34 percent of the nation’s drinking water. TCE has a very low tendency to bio-accumulate, with no evidence of human carcinogenicity. But that list likely, and unfortunately, includes many “chemophobes.”

TCE is classified as a “possible“ human carcinogen, but countywide no one has ever died of a TCE-related carcinogen.
Chemophobia made its debut in 1977, with the dihydrogen monoxide hoax being water (H2O). Its technical name, "dihydrogen monoxide", or “DHMO”, was labeled as hazardous. The hoax illustrated how the lack of scientific literacy can lead chemophobia. A 14-year-old student named Nathan Zohner gathered petitions to ban "DHMO". His science project was labeled "How Gullible Are We?".

Hopefully no one forgot Parts Per Billion (ppb) is actually one/one-thousandth, and a Parts Per Trillion (ppt) is one one-hundred-thousandth, of a Part Per Million (ppm).

Asheville is now getting political ads on TV from Senator Hagan about the dangers of “fracking” oil in NC. The ads discuss the chemicals that “may” be hazardous with fracking. It seems Hagan wants to take full advantage of those “chemophobes” for votes in Asheville.

Welcome to Asheville. The home of the brave, but not if your chemophobic.

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Kevin Roeten can be reached at roetenks@charter.net.