Vapor Intrusion - Environmental Health: Minnesota Dept. of Health

Vapor Intrusion

Image of how vapors can move through a building.

What is vapor intrusion?

Chemicals that have been spilled or dumped on the ground can pollute soil and groundwater. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that easily evaporate into air.

VOCs that evaporate from polluted soil and groundwater rise toward the ground surface. If these vapors come to a building as they travel to the surface, they may enter through cracks in the foundation, around pipes, or through a sump or drain system. The VOCs can then contaminate indoor air. This process - when pollution moves from air spaces in soil to indoor air - is called vapor intrusion.

For more information about the steps in a vapor intrusion investigation, see the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Vapor Intrusion webpage.

Should I be concerned about my health?

The purpose of a vapor intrusion investigation is to determine if there is a possible risk to the health of people that can be stopped. For there to be a health concern, contaminated vapor has to get into the indoor air at relatively high levels AND people need to breathe the contaminated indoor air vapor over time.

Buildings included in a vapor intrusion investigation are chosen with the aim of finding out whether there is any risk for vapor intrusion or a potential health concern. Health risks from vapor intrusion are usually low. However, the risks may be greater when people are exposed to high amounts of some chemicals for a long time, or if exposed people are sensitive or their health is compromised.

Examples of people who may be sensitive include:

  • women who are pregnant or may become pregnant
  • infants and young children
  • elderly persons
  • people who are living with chronic disease or a compromised immune system

Because the risks are avoidable, we want to take steps to reduce or eliminate vapor intrusion where possible. If you have concerns about anyone living in your home or building who may be a sensitive individual, please contact MDH.

Trichloroethylene (TCE) and Tetrachloroethylene (PCE)

The most commonly found VOCs during vapor intrusion investigations in Minnesota are the industrial degreaser trichloroethylene (TCE), the dry cleaning solvent tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene, PCE), and components of petroleum.

TCE

When chemical vapors enter buildings from vapor intrusion, the amount in indoor air is typically not high enough to affect most people’s health. The possible health effects from breathing TCE depends on the levels in indoor air, how long people breathe it, and whether and when a pregnant woman is exposed.

  • Women who are in the first 8 weeks of pregnancy are the most sensitive to TCE exposures because it may increase the risk of heart defects in the developing fetus.
  • Breathing TCE over a long period of time may affect the immune system.
  • Exposure to TCE may also increase the risk of certain types of cancer (kidney, liver, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) based on studies in workers or animals breathing very high levels of TCE - thousands of times greater than what may be found at vapor intrusion sites.

Important:

MDH is especially concerned about women in their first trimester when the contaminant trichloroethylene (TCE) is present.

Information sheet: Trichloroethylene (TCE) in Air (PDF)

PCE

When chemical vapors enter buildings from vapor intrusion, the amount in indoor air is typically not high enough to affect most people’s health. The possible health effects from breathing PCE depends on the levels in indoor air and how long people breathe it.

  • At high levels in the workplace, PCE can cause neurological effects such as vision changes or delayed reaction time.
  • Exposure to PCE may increase the risk of certain types of cancer (bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, liver cancer, and leukemia) based on studies in workers or animals breathing very high levels of PCE - thousands of times greater than what may be found at vapor intrusion sites.

Information sheet: Tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene, PCE) in Air (PDF)

For more information

For health-related questions regarding vapor intrusion or contaminated sites, please contact us.

Commonly Asked Questions at a Vapor Intrusion Investigation site. 

Prepared in cooperation with the
US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

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Updated Thursday, November 02, 2017 at 12:57PM