On March 25, the Washington-based R.J. Lee Group sought to demonstrate and test a $300,000 "Proton Transfer Reaction Mass Spectrometer" (PTRMS) that can instantly test for the presence of toxic gases in the air. In five homes it found elevated levels of trichlorotethylene (TCE) vapors, the chemical that has polluted much of the groundwater in the area near the complex. It wasn't a far-fetched result — two homes across the street were found by the Environmental Protection Agency to have elevated levels of TCE earlier this year.
But air samples taken by the EPA in the complex, after being analyzed in a lab, "have generally not confirmed" the spectrometer's results, said Alana Lee, EPA project manager. "It's my understanding" that R.J. Lee's own air samples taken at the time of the tests, after being analyzed, couldn't confirm the instant results of the PTRMS either, she added.
R.J. Lee group's Jim Conca said in an email to the Voice that the firm is still analyzing what happened, three weeks later, though Todd Rodgers, the chemist who oversaw the tests, said R.J. Lee's own samples could be analyzed within a week to confirm the results of the PTRMS.
"We are still working on this and can't confirm," Conca said.
Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, said he had already apologized to the residents in the complex with whom he arranged to have their indoor air tested, saying that it was apparent to him that the company wasn't ready for such a demonstration.
Siegel and researchers with R.J. Lee did make it clear to the residents that the tests were experimental and needed to be confirmed, a message that was also reported in the Voice's story on the tests.
One resident at the complex said she was upset about the discrepancy between the low levels the EPA found in her home and the elevated levels found by the R.J. Lee group.
Resident Kris Purdum had a different take, despite having the highest TCE levels in the complex, according to the R.J. Lee Group, which found 11 micrograms per cubic meter of TCE in her home — well above the EPA's limit of 1 microgram.
That reading was contradicted by an air sample taken from her home by the EPA three weeks before, the lab analysis of which recently showed no TCE, Purdum said.
"It's new technology and they have to test it out somewhere," Purdum said. "If they know there's discrepancies maybe they can refine their process and see what's going on. Doing tests like this, that's only way to make technology better."