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Soil test under county building in Orange turns up toxic chemical

February 27, 2012 |  6:33 pm

Soil test under county building in Orange turns up toxic chemical
A chemical used in dry cleaning and for degreasing equipment has been found in an area of soil beneath an Orange County building that is the subject of multiple lawsuits from workers who say the air in those offices made them sick.

Over the weekend, soil testing was conducted at the building that houses more than 550 county workers, including people from the Orange County Social Services Agency and the Sheriff’s Department.  The testing was allowed in January after a years-long battle with about 11 people who say the building has caused auto-immune diseases and led to severe birth defects.

Preliminary results revealed the presence of tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene, at 5 feet and 10 feet underground. The level of the chemical at 10 feet underground did not meet California Human Health Screening Levels, said TerryLynn Fisher, the public information officer for the Social Services Agency.  

"Perc," as the chemical is called, is part of a family of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, which can be harmful to a person’s health. According to a chemical fact sheet from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, breathing the chemical over long periods of time can cause liver and kidney damage in humans. Exposure to large amounts can cause cancer in humans.

The county will conduct additional testing to determine the cause of the elevated level of perc and on Monday informed employees about the preliminary results in a town-hall-style meeting, Fisher said.

Fisher noted that the chemical was not found in a test conducted in 2011, and that, according to experts hired by county, there is no cause for alarm.

"This is just a guideline to say that further testing is needed," she said.

About 489 Social Service Agency employees and 80 Sheriff’s Department employees work in the two-story building in an industrial area of Orange. The building was formerly used as a site to manufacture oil drilling equipment.  

About 70 employees are expected to move an adjacent building as additional testing is conducted.


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--Nicole Santa Cruz

Photo: Orange County's Social Services building in Orange. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times