News

Toxic vapors found in Google offices

TCE vapors reach unacceptable levels; efforts to remedy it in progress

After a carcinogen was found to be seeping up from contaminated soil into buildings, Google is working to protect employees from a mess left behind by the Valley's earliest tech companies.

Over 1,000 Googlers moved into "the Quad" near Whisman Road and Middlefield Road in June of 2012, an area once home to Fairchild and Intel, among others. Those companies used TCE (trichloroethylene) as a solvent in the manufacturing of the first silicon computer chips, leaving behind a massive plume of contaminated groundwater discovered in 1981 -- one that may take many more decades to clean up.

Though regularly tested since 2003, in December Google's new buildings at 369 and 379 Whisman Road were found for the first time to have TCE vapors above the Environmental Protection Agency's indoor screening level, said Alana Lee, project manager for the EPA. The results were blamed on building modifications made for Google that created a pathways through the floor for the vapors to seep into parts of the buildings.

In a recent round of indoor air tests of office buildings above the MEW plume (so named because it is roughly bordered by Middlefield, Ellis and Whisman roads), two office buildings were found to have TCE vapor levels over the limit despite ventilation systems operating: a vacant building at 630 National Drive and 480 Ellis Street -- occupied by surgical equipment maker Aesculap and consultant firm Bristlecone. The latter is undergoing changes to its ventilation system to address the problem.

A Google spokesperson called the levels "anomalous" in its buildings and the causes were "promptly identified and fixed. The health of our Googlers was not put at risk in any way at any time."

TCE's health risks

In 2011 the EPA issued its Final Health Assessment for TCE, calling it "carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure" and reporting that inhalation can cause "hepatic, renal, neurological, immunological, reproductive, and developmental effects."

"The potential health concern is long-term exposure to TCE," said the EPA's Lee. "Any exposure would have been for a limited time, a short term. There hasn't been any exposure for a long period of time."

The polluters are financially responsible for indoor air testing and any mitigation measures that are needed, but Google is known for its obsession with reducing common toxic chemicals in its buildings from furniture, paint and building materials, going above and beyond industry standards.

"Google continues to monitor the air quality at the Quad and make the information readily available to Googlers," the spokesperson said.

The buildings now have ventilation systems that run all hours of the day and "activated carbon filters" are used to remove volatile organic compounds like TCE from the air, the spokesperson said.

In the long term, the EPA reports that efforts are underway to install "subslab depressurization systems" under the buildings at 480 Ellis and 369-379 Whisman to draw the vapors away before they can rise into the buildings.

When asked if Google was pushing to have the groundwater cleaned up, the Google spokesperson said, "We'd welcome and expect all the original parties involved to continue to innovate in finding new and improved science for removing this and all chemicals from our groundwater throughout the country."

Comments

4 people like this
Posted by TCE Not for Me
a resident of Castro City
on Feb 21, 2013 at 11:31 am

"When asked if Google was pushing to have the groundwater cleaned up, the Google spokesperson said, "We'd welcome and expect all the original parties involved to continue to innovate in finding new and improved science for removing this and all chemicals from our groundwater throughout the country."

To translate: "No, someone else made the mess, someone else should clean it up. We support someone else cleaning it up"

I don't blame them for that stance, but I sure would be leery about working all day in that building.


4 people like this
Posted by dude
a resident of Shoreline West
on Feb 21, 2013 at 2:04 pm

shoreline lake contaminated too? probably


5 people like this
Posted by Lenny Siegel
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 21, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Subslab depressurization systems are protective because they cause vapors to move down from inside buildings, rather than up from the contaminated soil. In my experience, air filters are not very protective.


3 people like this
Posted by condemn the whole area
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 21, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Intel, Fairchild, HP, etc. need to buy up all the land that they polluted and clean it up once and for all. No one should be allowed to live or work on this land until it is cleaned up. Surely, the cleanup will go much faster if all the buildings are removed first. Do it now before we see a spike in cancer rates around our city.


3 people like this
Posted by OMV neighbor
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 21, 2013 at 6:55 pm

I understand that Promethus did not allow testing in the apartments at 600 Whisman. Hopefully this will spur the people who live there to contact the agency directly and measure the conditions in their apartments.


3 people like this
Posted by Larry Page
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 21, 2013 at 11:21 pm

Just the gassy aftermath of the Chromebook Pixel announcement. Move along.


3 people like this
Posted by You have a choice
a resident of The Crossings
on Feb 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm

This just in, mass numbers of lawyers have begun pee-ing themselves in excitement over a company knowingly making workers work in a toxic environment. Its in Google's best interest to help. While its not their legal responsibility, for a company that prided its slogan as "Do no evil", knowingly allowing their workers to sit in TCE fumes is not living up to that standard. If I worked there, 1) I would contact a lawyer, and 2) I would request a formal move from that building. Get it in writing. When you're 50 and liver cancer is diagnosed, it will be too late.


3 people like this
Posted by Craig
a resident of another community
on Feb 22, 2013 at 1:12 pm

That entire area, 100s of square miles, are contaminated. Moffett Field was one of the worst polluters as the government used TCE to clean everything (machinery, aircraft, etc.) and then dumped the barrels on the ground (not understanding the environmental effects at the time). Many, many former employees have died from liver failure and many today are sick from having worked there. Good luck cleaning it up.


3 people like this
Posted by Maybe 1000's!
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 22, 2013 at 3:07 pm

"100s of square miles."

Have you actually seen the plume map (I have)and do you know how large hundreds of square miles is (I do)
Yes, what you say about the use of TCE in the past is true....that part is true. Don't exaggerate. There is no need if you have a valid point


3 people like this
Posted by LMAO
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Feb 22, 2013 at 4:18 pm

The google offices will be safer than the Whisman Station homes. This is amazing.


3 people like this
Posted by Otto Maddox
a resident of Monta Loma
on Feb 24, 2013 at 11:04 pm

Amazing.. I can remember when they tore down the Fairchild Buildings.

They had to leave the soil open to the air.. for a while I recall.. to let chemicals evaporate into the air. Then they built new buildings right on top fo the toxic waste.

Then they did the same thing with the old GTE site a few years later. And they built houses on top of that pile of checmicals.

I don't know who'd buy a home or work in any of those buildings. Not me.


3 people like this
Posted by Terri
a resident of another community
on Mar 6, 2013 at 4:36 am

"Though regularly tested since 2003, in December Google's new buildings at 369 and 379 Whisman Road were found for the first time to have TCE vapors above the Environmental Protection Agency's indoor screening level, said Alana Lee, project manager for the EPA. "

Do you really think ANY level of a carcinogen is safe?


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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