Preliminary tests of a Commerce Department building in Annandale where it was feared that poisonous PCBs had been released during an electrical fire this week found no evidence of contamination, federal officials said yesterday.
The leased building was closed after a fire Tuesday night involving two electrical capacitors filled with fluid containing the toxic polychlorinated biphenyls.
Because of concerns about contamination, 51 Fairfax County firefighters and employees were scrubbed down and sent home.
Preliminary tests done for the General Services Administration, which leases the building, found no evidence that PCBs had leaked or spread via smoke to other parts of the building.
Final results are expected today and could mean the building will reopen in a few days.
"We thought it was significant," said William Hart, GSA's safety and environmental management director. "There will be some cleanup, but it's not as bad as the picture that's being painted."
Manufacture of PCBs, once commonly used to insulate and cool electrical equipment, was banned in 1979 after longtime exposure was linked to skin, liver and central nervous system damage, and possibly cancer.
If PCBs catch fire, they produce even more poisonous dioxin that can be carried by soot and smoke to contaminate an entire building.
Lt. Michael Reilly, a Fire and Rescue Department spokesman, said the product inside the electrical equipment showed the presence of 950,000 parts per million of PCBs, not samples taken from the walls and equipment in the utility room where the fire occurred, as had been incorrectly reported yesterday morning in The Washington Post.
Despite GSA's preliminary results, the fire department said it would wait for results of its own tests before making any decisions. "We stand by the procedures we initiated," Reilly said last night.
"We are still not releasing this building until we are 100 percent sure what's there," he said.
"Everybody feels relieved," said John Sargent, a Commerce Department spokesman.
"We're hopeful that upon receiving confirming results, the fire chief will reopen the building with dispatch," he said.
Asked whether federal officials believed the county fire department overreacted to the PCB scare, Sargent replied, "Perhaps there was an overhealthy sense of cautiousness."
Fire officials said they took unusual precautions because PCBs are unusually dangerous.
The list of poisoned places where PCBs played a role includes Love Canal, the New York state community closed for a dozen years because of chemicals dumped there; a building in Binghamton, N.Y., abandoned since a 1981 fire that has cost more than $40 million to clean up; and the now-defunct Avtex rayon plant in Front Royal, Va., which the state says has contaminated the Shenandoah River for decades.
Firefighters responding to the call at 11:07 p.m. Tuesday saw smoke billowing out of the loading-dock area in the back of the building, said Lt. Arthur Varnau.
As they approached the fire in a utility room, Varnau said he suspected the presence of PCBs.
"I cannot tell you why, but for some reason it clicked that PCBs could possibly be involved," said Varnau.
He immediately ordered that the eight firefighters don breathing apparatus.
After extinguishing the fire in less than 10 minutes, fire officials confirmed his suspicions, Varnau said.
Varnau said there was no visible sign warning of the presence of PCBs. "We're all worried," said Varnau, who, like other firefighters, was given a blood test. "We have the right to know that PCBs are inside a structure. They're putting our lives in danger."
GSA officials said the three dozen small electrical capacitors in the building each contained less than three pounds of PCB fluid, the level at which federal law requires regular inspection, maintenance and restricted public access.
Environmental Protection Agency officials, who regulate PCBs, said they did not immediately know whether the fire or handling of PCBs in the building violated their regulations.
A firefighter and an unidentified woman who was near the building Tuesday night were seeking medical attention yesterday for such symptoms as headaches and elevated blood pressure, a fire official said. It was not clear whether those conditions were linked to the fire, officials said.
A 24-hour hot line was established to answer any questions about the hazardous-materials incident, the official said. The hot line number is 703-280-0530.
WHAT THEY ARE: Polychlorinated biphenyls are a class of 209 man-made chemicals used as coolants and dielectrics in transformers and capacitors, as well as other applications.
HEALTH ISSUES: Toxic substances do not break down and dioxins are generated when they burn.
LAWS GOVERNING THEM: Toxic Substances Control Act, labeling of transformers (more than 500 parts per million), disposal of equipment, emergency response plan.
There are 1,000 PCB accidents each year.
1.25 billion pounds of PCBs were used in the United States from 1929 to the 1970s.
310 million pounds ofPCBs are still in use.
100 million pounds have been used as hydraulic fluid/heat transfer fluid.
45 million pounds have been used in carbonless paper.
115 million pounds have been used in other ways.