2 Investigates: Contamination questions prompt calls for more testing

MENLO PARK, Calif. (KTVU) -- A paper trail detailing years of concerns about toxic contamination, health complaints from former tenants, and a lawsuit alleging a lack of disclosure have some experts calling for additional testing of the air and soil at a commercial property on the Peninsula.

San Mateo County Health officials say the buildings at 160-162 Constitution Drive in Menlo Park pose no health risk.  Former tenant Ron Lamb is not convinced.

Health problems

Sunnyvale resident Lamb says a series of serious health problems began for him in March of 2005 when he had the first of what would be three heart attacks.  The 61-year-old says he already suffered from an immunological disorder.

"I was having problems with my legs, my arms, my heart -- particularly, where my doctor started asking questions about my exposure to VOC's," said Lamb.

VOC's or Volatile Organic Compounds are potentially harmful chemicals known to cause short and long-term health problems.  Documents show some VOC's were found in the groundwater under the building where Lamb and his girlfriend leased space for a cabinet making business from 2002 to 2008.

"We didn't know, until well after the end of the lease, about the toxics.  None of it was disclosed to us or any of the tenants of the building," said Lamb.

Lawsuits, testing, limited response

Lamb says concerns about contamination only came to light when his girlfriend, Lorie Williams, later sued the former owners of the building over other problems at the property including a leaky roof and windows.  Williams lost that case, but later filed a second suit challenging the verdict.

The second suit also claims evidence of contamination at the property was never disclosed.

Central to that claim, a private groundwater study in 2007 that found some VOC's.

Around the same time, the building's property manager, Ventana, sent an e-mail to a prospective buyer warning them they were "not authorized to report any results" of the study "to any third party or governmental agency."

2 Investigates called Ventana for a response and left several messages, but no one returned those calls.  When KTVU's Eric Rasmussen approached assistant property manager Sarah Martignetti outside Ventana's offices in Palo Alto, she had nothing to say about the property in question.

"We're just not going to comment at this time," said Martignetti as she walked away from Rasmussen.

The current owners of the property, Elm Associates, also declined to comment for this report.

History of Concerns

More documents reveal the buildings on Constitution Drive used to house a medical testing laboratory until 1994.  Records show the business used toxic liquids and solids on site.

In January of 1994, a report from San Mateo County indicated a person on the property had to be hospitalized for "shortness of breath and eye irritation."  Hazardous Materials crews noted "possible acetone in the sanitary sewer system."

Later in 1994, as the property was being sold, a former employee wrote the new owners a letter warning them about "toxic fumes" going on "...over some ten years."

A state database shows a record of clean up sites of various kinds in and around Menlo Park, but it noted no issues for the buildings at 160 - 162 Constitution Drive. 

Independent Expert:  More Testing Needed

2 Investigates shared the documents it collected about the property with Lenny Siegel, Executive Director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight in Mountain View.

"This doesn't appear to be a very contaminated site, but we don't know for sure.  We don't know for sure whether there are contaminants that made it into the building," said Siegel.

The 2007 groundwater study found levels of VOC's that would only be considered above acceptable levels if the water was ever used for drinking.

San Mateo County Health System signed off on the property in December 2014, declaring "no further action" is required.

Siegel disagrees and says more testing is needed to rule out vapor intrusion, a process where vapors from VOC's can enter a building.

"The simplest way is to sample the indoor air," said Siegel.  "I have a concern that vapor intrusion may be a problem there.  I don't know that it is, but the document seems to suggest there was a release on the property. Somebody leaked, spilled, somehow got contamination into the subsurface."

San Mateo County officials have dismissed vapor intrusion as a possibility at the property in question, but could not confirm whether any indoor air testing has been performed.  In a statement

Seeking Answers

Siegel says it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove Ron Lamb's health problems were caused by any contamination, but says he and other former tenants deserve some answers.

"People have a right to know.  They really have a right to know at the time they're exposed so they can make a decision not to work in a building," said Siegel.

The buildings' current owners would not comment on the case or why the buildings have remained mostly vacant since Lamb and his partner moved out nearly seven years ago.

A judge dismissed the claims in the latest lawsuit, but she left the door open for Lamb and his partner to amend one claim.  They say they are already preparing an appeal.

"I'm not going away," said Lamb.  "We need to find out what's in the ground."

While no one from San Mateo County Health System would speak to KTVU on camera, it issued a written statement from Director for Environmental Services, Heather Forshey:

"The Health System takes possible health concerns seriously. For this property, each concern brought to our attention was investigated. Each time, we could find no evidence that there was a risk to people's health. No additional evidence has been provided to support further investigation of this property. If there is any new information, we will look into it."
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