Underground Utility Work Imperils Neurological Health

Jason Kuffer, CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific American – Earlier this year Nicole Davis arrived at one of the San Antonio, Tex., offices of the audiology practice she co-owns, ready to see the day’s patients.

But upon entering her office, Davis says she quickly noticed a noxious odor that smelled like paint thinner. Her eyes started burning. By noon, she felt nauseated and dizzy, with the burning sensation spreading to her nose and throat. Her mouth went numb.

Co-workers in the building told Davis that they felt ill, too. By the evening, she says, she was vomiting.

Two days later, Davis received an e-mail from an employee for a construction firm that was doing work that week on municipal pipes below street-level near the building.

The employee apologized in the e-mail for Davis’s “recent experience,” and attached a technical document describing the hazards and health risks associated with materials used to make plastic in the pipe project.

The e-mail and attachment do not state that the work caused the odor or Davis’s reaction.

The company was renovating an underground sewer pipe with a widely and increasingly used technique called cured-in-place pipes.

A felt or composite sleeve is saturated, typically with a polyester or vinyl ester resin.

Workers thread the sleeve through an underground pipe and then inflate and heat it, often with steam or hot water.

The sleeve hardens to form a continuous plastic liner along the old pipe’s inner walls. The technique is less expensive and takes less time than fully replacing old sewer-system pipes and stormwater culverts.

Davis has recovered from most of what she says her doctor told her were neurological effects from a chemical exposure.

But she says she did not receive any advance notification of the work or of any associated odors or potential hazards, and thinks she should have been notified.

When she sought information from local and regional public health authorities about the health risks noted in the technical document and any treatment she might need, she hit dead ends with local and regional public health authorities, she says … Read more. 

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