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Trichloroethylene (TCE) Concerns for Google Employees

November 6, 2013

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, computer chip manufacturers occupied and worked within a territory just outside of NASA Ames in Moffett Field, Mountain View, California.  During their daily operations, these companies (namely Intel, Raytheon, Fairchild and Semiconductor) used one of the most notoriously hazardous materials, chemical trichloroethylene (TCE) as an industrial solvent in the manufacturing of the first silicon computer chips.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), mismanagement, improper storage, and hazardous waste disposal of the chemicals led to a “leak or release to the ground, impacting soil and groundwater. For more information about hazardous waste sites, Superfund sites, and their clean-up efforts visit the EPA’s website

A plume of contaminated groundwater was discovered in 1981, and the federal government designated the area as a Superfund site.  Since 1989, more than 100,000 pounds of TCE and other contaminants has been removed.

A “Superfund” site is an area contaminated with hazardous wastes or substances.  The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) is a federal law designed to clean up such sites, and authorizes the EPA to identify responsible parties and enforce clean-up.  When responsible parties can’t be identified, there’s a trust fund in place that allows the EPA to do it themselves.

While Superfund has located and analyzed tens of thousands of hazardous waste sites and protected many people and different environments from contamination in the process, it’s hardly a perfect system.

The Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman (MEW) Superfund Study area is home to more than 85 businesses, including an ultrasound center and adoption office – and perhaps most notably, the “Googleplex”.

The TCE levels at “Googleplex” were thought to be under control, but became problematic again – possibly due to workers disabling a critical part of the ventilation system.  Building modifications were being made that created a pathway through the floor.

From mid-November 2012 to mid-January 2013, levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) in the air well exceeded concentrations that would be considered safe, exposing more than 1,000 Google employees to the hazardous chemical.

TCE is known to cause cancer and birth defects.  When inhaled, it causes central nervous system depression resulting in general anesthesia.  Pregnant women who are exposed to even minimal levels of the chemical during a vital three-week period in their first trimester face an elevated risk of having a baby born with cardiac abnormalities.

Workplace exposure has been associated with toxic effects in the liver and kidney, and even development of symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.  A janitor in the 1970s used TCE to clean supermarket floors, and famously died a mere three weeks later.  Dr. Phillip Leveque, an Oregon Professor of Pharmacology and Forensic Toxicologist, eventually offered expert testimony in the family’s wrongful death case against DOW Chemical.  DOW Chemical lost, and was forced to pay the man’s family.

EPA spokesperson David Yogi says that they “cannot verify how many employees were in the Google buildings in question,” but promises that the EPA intends to “take a more aggressive approach to ensure prompt action” when TCE levels become dangerous in future situations.  He also has suggested that affected women of childbearing age consult their doctors about exposure concerns.

Hazardous Waste Experts can help ensure your hazardous materials are managed and disposed of safely, and provide you with further information on hazardous waste removal and environmental remediation. Contact us today or call 877.200.2029.

Disposal of hazardous waste doesn’t have to be painful.