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In Search of the Cookie Dough Tree (aarongreenspan.com)
194 points by thinkcomp on Apr 5, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

The lucky thing here, to the extent that anything involving a Superfund site can be lucky, is that the people and organizations affected are rich.

I have spent some time over the last couple of years working with a heavily polluted town in Central Illinois (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DePue,_Illinois). In this town, there are heavy metals in the soil of the school playground.[1] Property values have fallen to next to nothing, which prevents the residents from leaving. And these residents, who were working-class folks in the heyday of the town before all the jobs moved out, and many of whom are Hispanic immigrants who work the surrounding farms and are too scared of the government to raise a fuss, don't have the leverage of Palo Alto's Stanford and Berkeley grads. Cleanup happens at whatever pace the responsible polluters feel like moving at, which is to say: glacially.

These sites are all over the country, and as bad as it is being described here, what's happening in Palo Alto is a sort of best case scenario as far as these things go.

[1] It comes from a giant pile of ore refining waste product: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-HQPY7nT2L4c/UPc4_GK-VDI/AAAAAAAABA... (short video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Au24-gdV2c0). It's hard to get an idea of the scale, but the actual pile is a good ways away from the fence the girl is standing in front of and extends a ways in both directions out of the frame (see the video). It contains 750,000 tons of zinc slag. When it rains, all the heavy metals leach out of the slag.

EDIT: I don't mean to minimize the situation in Palo Alto by any means. Just trying to put it in the bigger context. The things you're seeing: local governments doing nothing, landlords looking the other way, regular people being the ones who get hurt--are standard operating procedure for these sorts of situations.

Fwiw, these situations, where there is not a responsible polluter with enough money to go ahead with a reasonable cleanup, are supposed to be covered out of a trust fund, which is funded by a general tax on likely-to-pollute industries. Except: this tax was repealed in 1995, and the trust fund is now out of money. So they don't get cleaned up.

There are occasional proposals to reinstate the Superfund tax, but the GOP has been blocking them.

Expiration of the trust fund is definitely a huge problem.

That said, in the Illinois case, money is not the issue...

Here are the tox reports for 1,1,1-TCE and Trichloroethylene, respectively



1,1,1-TCE used to be a household chemical; it was a component of liquid paper, of floor adhesives, and spray-on shoe polish. It was phased out due to concerns about the ozone layer. It is not classified by the EPA or the WHO IARC as carcinogenic.

Unlike 1,1,1-TCE, Trichloroethylene is apparently still used in household products, like corrections fluids, and in a number of automotive solvent cleaners. You can smell it at 0.01% concentration in the air; it is indeed apparently smelly stuff, about twice as smelly as 1,1,1-TCE (I'm guessing this is a linear response). It is a probable human carcinogen based on mouse models; maximum routine occupational exposure over 8 hours is 200ppm (so about twice the level at which you start to smell it).

If you're my age and you remember the CFC media blitz of the late 80's: TCE/1,1,1-TCE are apparently archetypical examples of CFCs. TCE is an extremely common industrial chemical; it isn't (if you were wondering) in any way specific to electronics.

Just to build on this a little bit, cause the article also gets a little confusing regarding chemicals in question.

The TCE that pops up in the article over and over again is 1,1,1-TCE. As pointed out, it is not counted as carcinogin, however it has been linked to birth defects in lab animals.

What is your source for this statement? According to the EPA, "The primary contaminants detected at the site were trichloroethene (TCE); 1,1,1-trichloroethane (1,1,1-TCA); tetrachloroethene (PCE); gallium; and arsenic."

Wikipedia says "The IUPAC name [for trichloroethylene] is trichloroethene." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trichloroethylene

For whatever it's worth, what I called 1,1,1-TCE was 1,1,1-trichloroethane (what you [probably correctly] called 1,1,1-TCA).

If you're my age and you remember the CFC media blitz of the late 80's: TCE/1,1,1-TCE are apparently archetypical examples of CFCs.

They're not C[F]Cs -- no [f]luorine in them.


I plead office move today. The 1,1,1-TCA EPA tox report said it was pulled because of ozone layer concerns, and there's a 1,1,1-TFA that is a CFC. But yep, that was a dumb sentence for me to have written.

Unfortunately, the acronym "TCE" has been used for both 1,1,1-trichloroethane and trichloroethene (and even sometimes tetrachloroethene). It appears, though, that the preferred usage is "TCA" for trichloroethane (either 1,1,1-TCA or 1,1,2-TCA) and "TCE" for trichloroethene. ("Trichloroethylene" is an alternate name for trichloroethene.)

For clarity, I would suggest not using "TCE" for trichloroethane.

From 15 minutes of reading EPA records-of-decisions, you're obviously right; it's 1,1,1-TCA.

TCE is used for degreasing and for dry cleaning clothing.

Which is ironic, because a major part of Silicon Valley's success was that it was populated by inventor people who don't send clothes to he dry cleaner, and not the empty $1000 suits of the east coast.

So I wonder, what would it take to create a low-cost gadget to sense & record pollutant levels and sell them on the market(maybe as an arduino plugin?).

It would be really great to be able to deploy your own sensor network instead of pleading with busy and underfunded governmental agencies to help you out.

In his 29c3 talk [0], Sean Bonner from Safecast [1] mentioned that air monitoring is something they'd like to do as well.

I'm very much interested in monitoring air pollutants. I live in a place in Germany where BASF built "the worlds largest chemical plant" right next to the centers of two cities with about half a million residents combined [2]. And of course, you can smell that they pollute the air with something. Yet there is no information whatsoever on which chemicals they dump into the air and what the concentration is. The usual air quality measurements cover O3, SO2, NO2 and PM10 [3]. It's probably easy to monitor those yourself, just buy a sensor. But how do you monitor something that you can smell, you don't know what it is? Mass spectrometer?

  [0] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyGjdloVPKQ
  [1] http://blog.safecast.org/
  [2] http://www.openstreetmap.org/?lat=49.4947&lon=8.4424&zoom=14&layers=M

Would love to see something like the Thermodo[1] but for air quality or pollen sniffing.

The aggregate data could be really interesting.

[1] http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/robocat/thermodo-the-tin...

That would be awesome. Plenty of people already have their own weather stations... why not detect pollutants too?

Because chemical detection is orders of magnitude harder than detecting wind speed/direction, temperature, and humidity? Doesn't mean it can't be done, but you'd have to throw some real money at the problem.


My startup builds big sensor networks - but the sensor side of things is where the real innovation is. Microfluidics, 'labs on a chip' in CMOS, infrared spectroscopy, etc...

Sadly it's worlds different than using thermocouples or reading i2c type buses.

I feel like its something we'll see in the not to distant future given the amount of interest in that sort of thing, especially for medical purposes. What's your thought?

I would hope so, as the technological side of things are moving briskly forward. Yet, if I'm honest, I don't see things panning out as idealistic as I'd wish. 'It's complicated'.

Unfortunately much of these advances cited above are academic efforts. How this translates to a product usable 'in the field' is perhaps more clear in the medical device world than in environmental monitoring.

I'd like to believe one could 'crowd-source' pollution monitoring. Open source sensors, drive costs down, collect data, throw it atop an OpenStreetMap layer and somehow the populus as a whole could make better informed decisions in resource consumption/politics/whatever.

Yet these types of studies (presently) are best carried out by governments and academic researchers for a number of reasons (land rights, use of 'mixed use' satellites, calibration, etc). Take water pollution for instance. The USGS builds 'The National Map' [1] which has a data layer for water runoff [2] (rivers,streams,etc), pollution sources [3], and whatever data sources are hidden in EPA, private mining/gas industires, Army Corp of Engineers, etc databases. The GIS work to make sense of even existing data is daunting. Add to it the polical winds of Fiscal Sequestration and 'less-regulation' and things look grim.

That said, microfluidics and biomarkers are moving more ino the Hacker realm and out of the cleanroom. And ultimately it's how well the Hacker community interacts with academia/goverment...

[1] http://nationalmap.gov/

[2] http://nhd.usgs.gov/

[3] http://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/digmap.html

Folks interested in this kind of thing from a hacker / citizen-science angle might be interested in http://publiclaboratory.org/ , "The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science".

Likely would not be detecting the type of pollution levels that you'd want, but it has expansion capabilities. Funded by Kickstarter. I'm looking forward to getting mine:


"The good news is that Palo Alto's water comes from the relatively pristine Hetch Hetchy reservoir."

It would be worthwhile to meditate on this while people work to remove the Hetch Hetchy reservoir from existence in the name of "restoring nature."

I'm hardly a supporter of efforts to remove HH reservoir in the near term. But... surely "we have to keep on importing water from two hundred miles away because the water all around us is a biohazard" is a less than ideal state of affairs, no?

ETA: of course, the biohazard aspect is just one of the reasons we rely on HH and not even the biggest. But it plays a role.

Less than ideal? Yes. Changeable at this stage? No. At some point we may have an alternate source of water but until this removing that reservoir will create a disaster.

It's not a biohazard. It's a chemical hazard.

A biohazard is when you spill untreated sewage into the Gowanus Canal during heavy storms because you have a combined sewage system, and it's full of freakish bacteria.

I assume when you said "biohazard" you thought "hazardous to biological things". That's really covered with just the "hazard" part though. :b

Biohazard sounds so much cooler than "hazard" though!

I don't think there's a high likelihood of that, really. True, the sierra Club is behind it and it has some local support, but since HH is a bargaining chip in the endless saga of trying to get public power for San Francisco instead of being served by PG&E, there are also a bunch of 'progressive' voices against any change.

Anyway, if any of your friends start rhapsodizing about blowing up dams and returning it to its original condition, point out to them that the water in the East Bay is hard as nails and nowhere near as tasty.

>The intersection of California Avenue and El Camino Real was about as reasonable a place to smell cake batter or cookie dough as Olympus Mons.

There's a bakery about 100 feet from that corner. They make 21 different kinds of cookies and various other assorted pastries. See: http://goo.gl/maps/DHFmn

I've never smelled anything even when standing right outside of Izzy's, and I've been there a number of times.

Also, Izzy's front door is actually 349 feet from where I was standing outside of Wells Fargo. It's 4,385 feet from the intersection where I first noticed the smell. So it's probably not Izzy's.

My first thought at "Cookie Dough Tree" was this (NSFW-ish):


OP's contaminants are a class of chemicals called dense nonaqueous phase liquids (DNAPLs) and they have a nasty habit of collecting at the bottom of aquifers (they're denser than water), making them particularly hard to clean up. They eventually degrade into vinyl chloride, which is a carcinogenic and toxic gas with a (yup) sweet smell.

(This is probably glossing over a lot, but it's the summary I got from my boyfriend who does site investigation for soil and groundwater contamination—It could be summed up as "never live downgradient from a dry cleaning establishment").

Groundwater pollution is really tough.

In my area have an old Army depot where dioxins, PCBs, and other nasties were dumped in the 1950's and 60's have leached into the ground, and now form a underground plume that has resisted remediation efforts, and is moving with the groundwater to the playing fields of the local high school. Basically, they drill wells and try to suck up contaminated groundwater.

In other cases, remediation measures are not 100% effective and can be really disruptive. In coastal areas on Long Island where Hurricane Sandy smashed ships to shore and ruptured oil tanks, nearby property owners are not allowed to reoccupy the property for 15 or more years while the contamination disperses into the environment. So be careful what you wish for.

The domain is blocked on the corporate network of one of the Silicon Valley companies mentioned.

Is this common? What other sorts of things are blocked? At a former workplace I didn't abuse Internet browsing rights until sites I used during breaks started getting blocked. From then on break times were spent either bypassing or working out how to bypass the blocking. Even work related sites were blocked. Cat and mouse with the IT department was good fun.

It's pretty rare, I see it pop up once a week or less.

A handful of sites are blocked, after a while of being available iphonedevsdk.com was blocked, for instance. That makes perfect sense given they were the vector for lots of high profile attacks.

Noisebridge.net was blocked, but while organizing an event I requested it be made available and it has been since.

I suspect there is a lot of overlap with Google's unsafe sites list, but this was listed as "Education;Spam/Illegal".

If it impacts your ability to read it, here's a copy: http://pastebin.com/uwKn6NUr


Yep. No sense being coy I suppose.

Why would Intel block my personal web site?

Keyword matching on content?

> When my company's office was located on Hillview Avenue in 2010, literally around the corner from Hewlett-Packard, I heard gossip about how the tech giant had polluted the area back in the day. Once a quick search confirmed that there was some truth to the rumor, it made me a bit nervous about drinking water straight from the tap at the office, so I bought a Brita filter, and didn't think much of it.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't a Brita filter be completely useless for this kind of contamination?

Activated charcoal is effective for 1,1,1-TCE water contamination.

One of the projects Terradex, my company, works on is the collection and mapping of various sources of publicly available environmental data. We're based in Palo Alto and actually spent a decent amount of time getting information on various groundwater plumes in Santa Clara County.

We paid extra close attention to this HP plume and a few others like the MEW plume around the Google campus, drawing them in manually from documents, but the vast majority are created based on convex hull calculations from the well information available on geotracker [1]. They are not perfectly accurate but provide a reasonable approximation of plume locations.

We pulled this data together last year during the summer and haven't done much with it since, but if anyone wants to click around and have a look here's a link that will bypass the login requirement: http://cleanupdeck.terradex.com/target/map_icplume/16/37.424.... You just need to click on the "groundwater plumes" layer on the left, and when you click on a blue plume it will bring up an info panel, most of which will have a link to the geotracker page which collates most of the useful information about the plume.


I'm considering a move to SF with my three young children and this gives me serious pause. I can research schools, crime, and "normal" pollution.... but how can I learn more about where these sorts of toxic environments are located? Especially if, like the OP states, the EPA are simply ignoring areas like his.

(I'm inclined to believe him too. But I'm biased against the EPA anyway... I'm still mad at them for telling us it was safe to go back to lower Manhattan days after the towers fell.)

See the Google Map link below my piece. You can zoom out to the entire state of California and then into any neighborhood for any chemical over various time periods.

It isn't pretty.

> How can I learn more about where these sorts of toxic environments are located?

It depends. Some cities and counties have maps available online with this information. Also the EPA has maps of every site, http://www.epa.gov/superfund/sites/

I grew up near Matadero Creek. Spent a lot of time there, near the donkey pasture, and behind what was then Barron Park Elementary school. Used to catch polywogs, bring them home, watch them grow into frogs. Chewed on more than my share of anise growing on the banks.

I was a bit shocked a few years ago to discover it's now a superfund site, and most of the dumping in the creek was taking place while I was busy being a typical kid.

So far, I haven't grown any extra limbs.

GOod news: frogs are a sensitive indicator of water pollution levels. So your polywogs growing up normally is as good evidence as you could have that all was well,at least with the water sources you played around.

640 Page Mill is now an ATT office. How fitting. Too bad De La Vega doesn't work there: https://maps.google.com/maps?q=640+Page+Mill+Road&hl=en&...

What's across the street? Why, an old folks home, of course: http://www.sunriseseniorliving.com/communities/sunrise-of-pa...

Also, luxury apartments and a VTA stop.

Technically, the AT&T store is at 2805 El Camino Real. 640 Page Mill Road no longer exists. It's a soccer field.

Still, all of these are in the zone, including the apartments.

Has anyone got any idea about the contamination of water through pipes? Is it a real risk? I know it may be theoretically possible, but has this been documented? My attempt to search this are contaminated (sorry) by hits on stuff the pipes themselves contaminate water with.

My guess is that the diffusion rate through the plastic pipes is very small compared to the average rate of water flow.

But I'd love to see measurements, particularly if they're taken early in the morning, when the flow rate has probably been low for several hours.

Back in 1979, where the soccer field is now, was a pizza place called "The Antique" (though its official address was undoubtedly on El Camino). I preferred it to any other pizza in the area, so I sure hope they weren't using well water...

The spill occurred in 1981, so your pizza was most likely fine.

Superfund is an interesting term which I only came across recently in the context it is being used here. In Australia it means something very different - a shorthand for Superannuation Fund.

Oh fun! I lived for a decade next to Illinois's largest TCE leak, Lockformer. Nasty stuff, and it has some rather interesting properties when underground.

And people think radiation is bad. At least radiation decays. The chemicals in this superfund site stay around for ever!

I longboarded to and from work on that path everyday for almost a year over 2011/2012, and never smelled anything :(

On June 27, 2006, a monitoring well, which most people (myself included) would probably never notice among the carefully manicured flowers and shrubs, registered 85,000 µg/L of TCE, the same toxic industrial de-greaser that newspapers reported about in Google's buildings a few weeks ago. For the sake of comparison, the federally-mandated limit for one liter of groundwater in micrograms is pretty far from 85,000. It's 5.

The silicon part of "Silicon Valley. "

That's a shit-ton of TCE too. 85,000 micrograms per L is 85 milligrams per L. In comparison, there is about 100 milligrams of caffeine in a liter of coke and about 400 milligrams of caffeine in a liter of coffee. So we're talking about containment levels at about the same order of magnitude as beverages that intentionally contain an active specific ingredient.

That is a shitload of TCE. I can't find any Superfund site with a similar concentration.

I found 29,000 uG/L at this petrochemical distribution facility: epa.gov/tio/download/remed/rse/mattiace.pdf (page 13 of the text, section 4.3.2).

Click the red triangle near 101 / 237 interchange in Sunnyvale on the google maps link from the footer of the article, you'll get this page:


It's sorted in descending order by max level of TCE detected at each well, ever. The top three wells are 140k (ca 2006), 110k (ca 2009), and 100k (ca 2007) micrograms / liter.

There's a similar site by the Sunnyvale Fry's on Arques, but that one's peak detection was 74.7k ug/L.

The golden age of groundwater contamination is just getting started. Fracking fluids are going to become part of our environment and bodies for eons to come.

If it is in our bodies for eons, maybe it isn't so hazardous?

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