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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wildfires destroying homes, forcing evacuations

Due to dry conditions, this year's fire season has
started early and is bound to set records.
Fire crews are making an unheard-of scramble as a huge number of lightning-sparked wildfires continue to burn across drought-parched regions of Oregon and Washington.

One fire in north-central Washington has already caused severe damage, destroying an estimated 150 homes.

According to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, there were 13 large, uncontained fires burning in Oregon as of last week, consuming over 494,000 acres.

In Washington, seven fires have burned close to 319,000 acres. Nearly 12,800 firefighters and support personnel have been dispatched, and both Washington and Oregon have declared states of emergency.

Carol Connolly, a public information officer for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, said that although the region has dealt with high-acreage fire incidents before, the complexity of having so many scattered across Oregon and Washington at once "is pretty unprecedented."

That means "20 different operations, 20 different fires to get resources to," Connolly said.

A National Interagency Coordination Center incident report showed that at least five of these fires have forced evacuation orders, and even more pose a threat to structures and residences.

Peter Goldmark, Washington's commissioner of public lands, said that beyond the challenge in addressing the large number of incidents, "it's also the very adversarial weather conditions that we've found ourselves in."

This year's fire season started early, due to unusual heat and drought conditions, he said. It has already far outstripped the number of acres burned in an average year.

In 2013, wildfires in Washington burned over 152,603 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). On Sunday, Washington's Carlton Complex Fire alone grew to nearly 300,000 acres.

The Red Cross has set up six different shelters for evacuees.

Complicating matters, the Carleton Complex fire has also caused extensive damage to power lines.

This level of fire activity is consistent with what the Pacific Northwest may have to contend with more as climate change intensifies. The National Climate Assessment, released this year, stated that warmer and drier conditions have already increased the frequency and intensity of fires in Western forests since the 1970s.

Under a scenario where emissions increase through 2050 and gradually decrease afterward, the assessment predicts that the median area burned each year in the Northwest could quadruple, reaching 2 million acres annually by the 2080s. However, this figure is expected to vary significantly depending on fuel conditions, it said.

Severe fire conditions are also being felt in other regions of North America. Unusually warm and dry weather, also consistent with climate change, has spurred wildfires in well over 2 million acres of Canada's Northwest Territories (ClimateWire, July 16).

California, too, is grappling with an above-average fire season. Speaking to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott said that three years of drought has left fuels on the ground "parched and ripe to burn."

"Southern California has been in continuous fire season since April of last year," Pimlott said. "They are burning with a speed and intensity that we would normally see in the peak of summer or fall."

Source: E&E Publishing;  This article has been edited for length.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Many clueless about natural asbestos problem

Asbestos fibers can get deep into the lungs
and affect people's health.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigators prompted by a resident's concern in late 2012 tested rocks near a housing development in Burlington, Washington, and found evidence of naturally occurring asbestos.

Prolonged exposure to the substance found inside the rocks has been shown to cause lung cancer, and investigators recommended in a draft report that signs be posted "alerting people to the dangers of asbestos exposure."

Residents, however, were never formally notified of the discovery by federal, state or local officials — a case that experts and others say highlights the challenges authorities face when dealing with naturally occurring hazards.

Jean Melious, an environmental and land-use lawyer who teaches environmental studies at Western Washington University, said natural asbestos is vexing for government agencies, partly because it's not a disaster that calls for immediate action.

"It's a lot easier for government to work when there's a big hue and cry," she said.

Andy Smith, an on-scene coordinate with the EPA, said no government agency has total authority over natural asbestos.

"This kind of problem falls in the cracks," he said.

Natural asbestos occurs throughout US

Natural asbestos is often found in certain types of rocks and near fault zones. It can be released into the air from the rocks when they are broken or crushed, as often occurs during mining or development.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources says naturally occurring asbestos has been found in areas in the northern part of the state and experts say it occurs throughout the United States.

Keith Welch, a resident of the Burlington Hill housing development who alerted federal authorities, said he's frustrated the authorities haven't been more proactive in telling people about the presence of asbestos and doing more comprehensive studies.

"It's one thing to be cautious," Welch said. "Now that it's been identified, somebody needs to do something about it."

The Burlington Hill case has helped agencies discuss best practices for permitting and public awareness, said Katie Skipper of the Northwest Clean Air Agency, which is responsible for enforcing air pollution regulations in Skagit, Whatcom and Island counties.

In June, Skagit County posted information about naturally occurring asbestos in the environmental health section of its website. It mentions the asbestos on Burlington Hill in one sentence, and provides links to other asbestos-related information.

In its March 2013 report, the EPA said it found actinolite asbestos along a road cut on the northeastern side of Burlington Hill. No asbestos was found at three other locations sampled.

Because of the health risks associated with asbestos, the report said people should limit their exposure to the asbestos and that a more thorough study would need to be done to determine how much asbestos might be at the site.

Source: KOMO News

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

EPA warns of TCE exposure

Agency releases final risk assessment on Trichloroethylene (TCE), begins process to address potential human health risks

Many dry cleaners and other small
businesses use toxic chemicals daily.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a final risk assessment for trichloroethylene (TCE). The assessment identified health risks from TCE exposures to consumers using spray aerosol degreasers and spray fixatives. 

It also identifies health risks to workers when TCE is used as a degreaser in small commercial shops and as a stain removing agent in dry cleaning.

“EPA calls on Congress to enact legislation that strengthens our current federal toxics law,” said Jim Jones, assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention.

“Until that time, we are using the best available science to assess and address chemical risks of TCE that now show that it may harm human health and the environment.”

The final TCE risk assessment was developed as part of the agency’s Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Work Plan, which identified chemicals for review and assessment of potential risks to people’s health and the environment.

EPA developed the draft TCE risk assessment based on the best available information and finalized the assessment after careful consideration of comments from the public and experts during an independent, scientific peer review of the assessment.

TCE is the first chemical to complete the work plan risk assessment process under TSCA.

EPA is conducting a workshop from July 29-30, on potential TCE degreaser alternatives and risk reduction approaches.

EPA will also conduct other activities to address TCE uses as a stain removing agent in dry cleaning and as a clear protective spray fixative.

In the meantime, EPA recommends that people take precautions that can reduce exposures, such as using the product outside or in an extremely well-ventilated area and wearing protective equipment to reduce exposure.

For more information on the TCE risk assessment, the July 29-30 public workshop, and TSCA workplan chemicals, click here.

Source: EPA

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Denmark abandons plan to ban phthalates

The ban would have been against EU rules: European Commission

Phthalates can be found in many products,
including medical devices and rubber boots.
Denmark has finally yielded to pressure from the European Commission to repeal its proposed ban on four phthalate chemicals (DEHP, DBP, DIBP and BBP).

Studies have proven that if the chemicals are ingested they can be harmful to the public, causing in some cases sterilisation, young women to prematurely hit puberty and malformed genitalia in new-born babies.

“The use of these phthalates are so widespread that they pose a serious health risk especially for small children and pregnant women,” Green Alliance’s environment spokesperson Per Clausen said in a statement.

While the EU has acknowledged these side-effects by banning the use of phthalates in children’s toys, they have not got around to banning the chemicals across the board.

Phthalates can be found in products ranging from medical devices to rubber boots. They generally serve the purpose of making plastics softer, more flexible and more durable.

Back in 2012, Denmark proposed the ban, which was set to come into effect in 2013. However, it was later postponed until 2015, and now it has been repealed altogether.

“EU rules should not prevent individual member states from protecting their citizens,” the former environment minister, Ida Auken, told Politken.

Nevertheless, Denmark has given into the pressure and scrapped its plans to ban the harmful chemicals.

Source: The Copenhagen Post

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Monday, July 21, 2014

CDC admits to poor lab safety measures

Lax safety measures in labs could lead
to staff exposure to dangerous microbes.
Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spent much time completing a report that would let the public see how the sloppy handling of anthrax by scientists at its headquarters had potentially exposed dozens of employees to the deadly bacteria.

But then he got a call about another accident, this one just as disturbing, if not more so — and no one in the agency’s top leadership had been informed about it earlier, though the C.D.C.’s lab had been told about it more than a month before.

C.D.C. workers had somehow shipped a dangerous strain of avian influenza to a poultry research lab run by the Department of Agriculture. Known as H5N1, the virus had killed more than half of the 650 people who had been infected with it since 2003.

The recent revelations have created a crisis of faith in the federal agency, prompting calls for an independent body to investigate such episodes in the future, as well as for sweeping changes at the agency and to a sprawling web of research labs that has grown after the 2001 terror attacks led to an intensified focus on microbes that could be used as biological weapons.

Dr. Michael Bell, a 19-year C.D.C. veteran who has been appointed by Dr. Frieden to a new position overseeing laboratory safety, said in an interview that he was most concerned about the “potential for hubris” among researchers who grow so inured to the daily grind of working with deadly microbes that they cease to follow safety protocols.

The agency both conducts that research and is charged with ensuring that other labs adhere to federal safety standards.

The agency’s internal investigation of the troubling events found that senior staff members had failed to write up a plan for researchers to follow in the anthrax study.

It also faulted scientists who neglected to review the existing literature before working with the deadly pathogen, and found that the agency was ill-prepared to respond to a potential exposure episode.

“It is ironic that the institution that sets U.S. standards for safety and security of work with human pathogens fails to meet its own standards,” Richard H. Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, wrote in an email . “It is clear that the C.D.C. cannot be relied upon to police its own select-agent labs.”

Dr. Frieden has closed the agency’s flu and bioterror laboratories and has banned all shipments from the agency’s highest-security labs while safety protocols are reviewed — a move that could freeze work at many public-health labs that rely on such shipments

Later this month, the C.D.C. will invite outside experts to form an external advisory group on lab safety. But some experts say that the agency should not police itself.

Dr. Frieden said the idea of an independent investigative agency was “certainly worth exploring.”

The anthrax accident occurred on June 5 in the agency’s bioterrorism rapid response lab. C.D.C. researchers in Atlanta had been preparing to test a faster way to identify dangerous substances. The lab used a virulent anthrax strain in the test when a weaker one would have worked.

The work was conducted in area classified as a “three” on the biosafety scale, with four being the highest security level. Such labs work with microorganisms that may lead to serious illness or death if inhaled, and follow strict safety guidelines: Workers wear safety hoods that filter air and typically work with infectious materials in special ventilated boxes called biosafety cabinets.

On June 2, according to the report, a lab supervisor called a scientist at another lab who had done similar work on a different bacterium, brucella, which can cause fevers and swelling in humans.

The written protocol for preparing brucella for the test was sent to the bioterrorism lab, and the supervisor told a scientist to follow it while preparing eight dangerous pathogens, including anthrax. But anthrax forms hardy spores, while brucella does not.

In addition, the brucella protocol required that bacteria be killed in a bath of formic acid for 10 minutes, and that small samples of it be incubated for 48 hours to be sure it was dead.

But a mix-up occurred when the instructions were conveyed over the phone. The scientist incubated the test samples for only 24 hours before sending the bulk of the bacteria to less-secure labs. Some of the bacteria were not filtered to remove spores.

After 24 hours, one scientist tried to sterilize the test plates in a high-power steam autoclave. But its door was stuck, so the plates were returned to the incubator. It was an inconvenience that would prove extremely lucky.

Over the next few days, scientists in two other labs where breathing equipment was not used agitated the bacteria and sprayed them with compressed gas, which could have blown spores into the air.

On June 13, one scientist checked the incubated plates and saw that anthrax was growing. If the door to the autoclave had opened properly and, as the report noted, the plates had been sterilized, “the event would not have been discovered.”

The troubling finding was reported immediately, according to the report. Rooms were closed off, and floors, tabletops, equipment and door handles were decontaminated.

Lab tests would later determine that the chemical bath would have killed any live, growing anthrax sent out of the lab, but not all the dangerous spores. Staff exposure, the report concluded, was “not impossible,” but “extremely unlikely.”

By looking at videotapes and the use of door key cards, managers tried to figure out who might have been exposed. They discovered another safety violation: staffers often “piggybacked,” following colleagues through doors without using their own cards.

Ultimately, 62 employees were offered vaccines and antibiotics. None have shown signs of illness related to anthrax exposure.

The near miss should have been reported immediately to top leadership, but was not.

Dr. Frieden said the delay shocked him because the agency’s flu lab is renowned in its field.

The report recalled other errors. In 2006, the agency accidentally sent live anthrax to two other labs, and also shipped out live botulism bacteria.

Both Dr. Frieden and his predecessor, Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, replied in letters over their signatures that the problems would be fixed.

The agency’s report suggested that fewer labs should be handling dangerous microbes.

Source: New York Times
This article has been edited for length.

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