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Elevated Benzene Levels near Dorm

By Daniel C. Stevenson
Associate News Editor

A leaking petroleum storage tank near Huntington Hall may have contaminated the air in at least one room in the dormitory. Air sampling tests revealed above normal levels of benzene, a toxic compound in petroleum.

The tank, located at a gas station abutting Huntington, was found to be leaking in 1991 and has since been removed. However, the petroleum may have contaminated the air and ground water nearby.

MIT leases over 50 rooms in Huntington from the Massachusetts College of Art, which in turn is renting the entire building from its owner, Wentworth Institute of Technology.

The state recently asked Wentworth to conduct the air sampling tests, according to Felice Janel of the Wentworth Safety Office. The air tests measured the levels of 36 volatile compounds, including four commonly associated with gasoline -- benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene.

Two rooms were tested, one on the first floor, and another on the second floor of the dormitory. Above normal levels of benzene were found in the television room on the first floor, according to Janel.

The affected room will be closed off and the television will be relocated, according to Associate Dean for Residence and Campus Activities Andrew M. Eisenmann '75 in a March 24 letter to MIT residents at Huntington.

In addition, an environmental site assessment showed that "there could be some gasoline contamination of the ground water" near Huntington, Janel said.

However, Janel assured residents that the ground water contamination will not affect residents' drinking water, which comes from the Quabbin Reservoir in western Massachusetts.

Huntington residents first learned of the contamination issue on March 16 in a memorandum from Paul McCaffrey, vice president of student affairs at MCA. The results of the tests were presented at a mandatory residents' meeting on March 23, during MIT's spring break.

In his letter, Eisenmann said that McCaffrey apologized for scheduling the meeting during the break, and has offered to hold another meeting.

"We [MIT] first heard about [the testing] this past Tuesday afternoon," Eisenmann said. "It did take a long time for the information to get to MIT."

"Honestly, we don't know what's going on," said Huntington resident and Undergraduate Associate Vice President Anne S. Tsao '94. Some Huntington residents "just don't understand the impact of all of this," Tsao said.

While there have been health problems, it is "too hard to say if these health issues are related" to the air contamination, Tsao said. Possible side effects of the contamination include dryness of the eyes and throat and sinus problems, she said.

"I see the problem as something that needs to be looked at. We only did one sample, so we have to do some additional sampling to see if that is a valid number," Janel said. Wentworth plans to test five additional locations today, she said.

Environmental Medical Services Director Charles E. Billings said his office is analyzing further tests performed by MIT last Thursday. They will determine the level of contamination and decide on "the next logical course of action" in consultation with the housing office, MIT administrators, and students, Billings said.

Eisenmann said that MIT would be "more aware of this kind of thing as a potential concern" when buying or leasing dormitory space in the future.

High benzene levels

A benzene concentration of one part per billion was found in the tested television room. The Massachusetts allowable ambient limit for benzene is 0.04 parts per billion, according to Janel. The concentrations of the other chemicals were within the limits.

However, the allowable ambient limit for benzene is based on a lifetime exposure -- 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for 70 years, Janel said. "For workers who might encounter benzene on the job, the allowable exposure level for 40 hours is one part per million," Janel said, which might reflect a more accurate allowable exposure level for students.

The allowable level for workers, which is 1,000 times higher than the levels found at Huntington, is "not expected to produce any negative health effects in workers," Janel said.