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Alex and Vicki Masters are devoted parents. Their 8-year-old son Vincent has his own area of the living room for his Lego bricks, and a baby gate keeps his 8-month-old brother, Gabriel, away from the small choking hazards. The baby can crawl across a brightly blanketed room, all under the gaze of his brother and stay-at-home dad.
Eight months ago, when the family arrived home from the hospital after Gabriel’s birth, difficult news awaited them. A flier had blown up against the fence. It said their El Cajon mobile home sits above a highly polluted stream of underground water flowing from an old aerospace manufacturing firm.
“I thought, ‘Great, I just brought my baby home, and he might be breathing toxic air right now,’” Vicki Masters recalls.
The main contaminant in the underground stream is a solvent called TCE. The chemical can cause miscarriages, low birth weight in babies and kidney cancer with enough exposure, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
Indoor air testing confirmed vapors were seeping into several homes, but levels at the Masters’ were the highest. Chemical vapors may have wafted in for years, including during Vicki’s pregnancy or before, when Vincent was a baby. The problem has existed since the 1960s and been known to state officials and the companies responsible since the 1980s. But the Masters and many of their neighbors were just finding out last fall, after inewsource published an online map of the contamination.
With the air test results in, a contractor brought over an air filter. The contractor works with Ametek, the company legally responsible for cleanup of the plume, and with state officials.
“They walked in with that sucker all new in plastic and they said, ‘We’re going to put it right here,’” said Alex Masters, indicating a spot in the living room. “There wasn’t much explanation. It was a three-minute process.”
The Masters said no one mentioned their home had the highest readings for the solvent TCE of any tested, more than twice the amount that triggers immediate action. Nor did anyone come back to make sure the filter was working for the young family or if the vapors were gone. Turns out it was not. And the vapors were still there.
The filter was so loud it gave Vicki Masters headaches and made it difficult to carry on a phone conversation. The air filter unit also sits on the floor, with bright lights and buttons right within the reach of baby Gabriel, who has been known to turn it off.
“I find it astonishing that they did not go back and resample very shortly after they put that air filtration unit in,” said Blayne Hartman, a geochemist with Hartman Environmental Geoscience, a Solana Beach company that does TCE air testing and treatment. “Waiting two to three months to do that, or four months, is totally inexcusable.”
That filter needs to be on all the time, said Lenny Siegal, an expert on toxic plumes who runs the nonprofit Center for Public Environmental Oversight in Mountain View.
“Whoever installs it should be checking on it,” Siegal said, comparing the situation to his solar company, which calls him any time his rooftop system turns off.
It was almost five months before anyone came back to test at the Masters’ home. Now those tests show the family is still being exposed to dangerous levels of TCE.
Air filters do not always bring down levels of gas to the degree hoped for. Subtle differences in air pressure can draw gases into the home. Chemical vapors can accumulate under houses above a plume.
Dr. Mary McDaniel, a consultant to Ametek and an environmental medicine physician, did not defend the treatment the Masters received. “But we had absolutely no reason to think it wasn’t working,” she said, referring to the air unit. “It’s been difficult. Sometimes in the past the family has been represented by an attorney, and a lot of the communication became quite complicated because of that.”
In recent days as this story was being reported, McDaniel and the environmental contractor ERM met with the family. Hartman accompanied the couple. Now Ametek has reached out and they are discussing possible relocation. The Masters said that cannot come too soon.
Research indicates gas levels can vary throughout a day and within a house. Vicki Masters worries the air filter is too far from the children’s bedroom, and they need to keep the door shut so the baby will sleep. She said she asked for a second air filter, in the children’s bedroom. “They’re like, ‘Oh, no. The one should be fine,’” she said.
Two new filters are now on order. There also is a plan to ventilate the home’s crawl space.
Although no follow up testing was conducted after the high results were found at the Masters’ home, ERM workers did visit the area during that time. They drilled new holes to measure chemicals in the shallow soil below the asphalt roads in the mobile park. They drilled one hole just outside the Masters’ house in Greenfield Mobile Estates. They left the plug of asphalt from the hole sitting under the family’s mailbox.
“Their job was to dig a hole. They didn’t care where they were putting the stuff that came out,” Alex Masters said. ERM retrieved the drilled asphalt after Masters raised the issue.
Vicki Masters said the experience has disturbed her sense of home.
“We don’t feel safe here,” she said. “I don’t want my kids to be affected. I don’t want them to be exposed,” she said.
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control, the lead agency on the El Cajon toxic plume, could have insisted the Masters’ home be checked to make sure the vapors were gone. It did not. The agency did not reply to requests for an interview.
Ametek has offered to test, at no charge, the air in any home located above the long shallow plume of contamination under Greenfield Mobile Estates, Starlight Mobile Home Park, and Cajon Villa Estates, some 450 homes. Seventy-nine requests had come in as of Wednesday. New ones arrive in McDaniel’s mail each day.