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What is Vapor Intrusion?

An Inroduction to Vapor Intusion

We got a phone call from a concerned citizen. She was concerned because the county environmental health agency sent a letter stating vapor intrusion could be occurring at her property. “Before I talk to anybody at county health, I want to know what vapor intrusion is and what it means for my family,” she confessed. 

“If you have a moment, I’ll explain,” I said. “Let’s start with the vapor.”

The Vapor

Understanding Chemical Evaporation: Why Some Liquids Evaporate Faster than Others

vaporintrusion.jpgI’m sure you’ve seen gasoline evaporate off the pavement, or a bowl of water evaporate leaving salt rings behind. How about rubbing alcohol? You might have noticed how it quickly evaporates leaving your skin cold. When you think about it, you might have noticed how gasoline or rubbing alcohol evaporates much faster than water. What’s going on?

When a liquid chemical evaporates, it turns from a liquid into a vapor or gas. All liquid chemicals evaporate to some extent, and the extent to which a chemical liquid evaporates shows its volatility. The more volatile a chemical liquid is, the greater the tendency it has to generate vapor. Gasoline has a greater tendency to turn into vapor than water, that’s why gasoline evaporates off the driveway faster than water, and that’s why gasoline is more volatile than water.

The Intrusion

The Risks of Vapor Intrusion: How Chemicals from Leaked Liquids Can Enter Buildings

When a liquid chemical leaks into the ground, it enters the soil and groundwater. Once in groundwater, the chemical has the potential to move along with the groundwater. As this process unfolds, and depending on its volatility, some of the released chemical turns into a vapor and enters the space of dry soil between the groundwater surface and the ground surface. At the ground surface, the vapor can enter buildings causing a buildup of chemical vapors. 

Vapors primarily enter through openings in the building foundation or basement walls such as cracks in the concrete slab, gaps around utility lines, and sumps. It also is possible for vapors to pass through concrete, which is naturally porous. In their vapor form, contaminants like gasoline, tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be inhaled, thereby posing immediate or long-term health risks.

What is Vapor Intrusion?

After explaining what vapor is and what intrusion is all about, we got back to the subject of the county's letter. I explained, “The letter is warning you that a groundwater plume contaminated with PCE may have moved under your property and the PCE vapor from the plume may be causing a vapor intrusion health risk.”

“The letter goes on to request you contact the county office so they can arrange sampling soil vapor at your property and determine if there is a health risk,”  I finished.

“So what if they find contaminated vapor beneath my property?” she asked.

I told her it depends on the level of contamination. At low levels, only monitoring may be necessary to show vapor intrusion is not a threat over time.  At moderate to high levels, contaminant cleanup and/or mitigation might be required to eliminate a vapor intrusion health risk.

“I have one more question,” she said. “Who’s going to pay for all this? It wasn’t our fault the contaminated groundwater moved under our property.”

I sympathized and explained that there are various grant and funding programs in California for this situation. “I am sure that if the county finds contamination, they will look to those responsible for the contamination, and if they can’t find those responsible, they will use the appropriate funding mechanisms available from the state.”

What is the definition of vapor intrusion?

Vapor intrusion refers to the migration of volatile chemicals from contaminated soil or groundwater into the indoor air of buildings. This can occur when chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or radon gas migrate through the soil and into buildings through cracks in foundations, basement floors, or walls.

Protecting Yourself from Vapor Intrusion: Tips and Solutions

We looked at what vapor intrusion is and how it could affect anyone near a contaminant release, even if the release didn’t happen on your property. The next question is how to protect yourself from vapor intrusion. Check this space for some answers.

We have over 30 years of experience dealing with problems like vapor intrusion, cleanup, and mitigation. If you have similar issues, we may be able to help. Click on the button below for a free consultation and learn more about what we can do to help.