Case of the month: BMW contamination

Jul 3, 2012 by

The insured reported that he had a falling out with his former roommate and was forced to move to a new location. Apparently the   former roommate was bent out of shape enough to vandalize the insured’s car by pouring a “greasy substance” over his vehicle.  This went down inside the vehicle doors (passing down the window seals), which also reportedly entered into the interior air supply ducting.   The fumes then permeated the interior of his five year old BMW, irritating the insured’s lungs, skin, and eyes. The insured reported he could not drive the vehicle any longer.

The insured’s insurance company requested GEI perform an environmental analysis of the chemical(s) that the insured alleged were inside his BMW when it was vandalized.  Various attempts were made to contact the insured, but first attempts were thwarted or hindered because the insured was moving his residence and, therefore, was unable to accommodate an immediate inspection of the vehicle.

The meeting with the insured eventually occurred at his new residence. The purpose of the meeting was to sample the interior air of his vehicle for the determination of the identity of the chemical contaminations.  He believed some type of nerve or lachrymatory agent (tear gas) was used on his vehicle and, based partially upon that assumption, he cleaned the vehicle using a commercial tear gas remover cleaning solution.

The passenger compartment air filter was inspected to obtain a sample for chemical analysis.  It was located high on the face of the firewall, under the hood, protected by a plastic frame guard.  When our expert remarked that it looked new, the insured stated that he had installed a new filter, and threw the old one away.  Our expert then explained that the new one could not be tested; it had been over 2 1/2 months since the date reported and volatile chemicals are very likely gone from the filter.  The insured agreed that testing of the new air filter would not be of any value.  Many of the insured’s personal possessions were inside the vehicle when it was vandalized, which he felt were also contaminated, so these were placed back inside the vehicle prior to air testing.

Our expert explained that two canisters set to a vacuum would be used to test the indoor air of his vehicle. One would be put inside his vehicle (right front seat) with the engine idling and the air conditioner working on its highest speed to sample the interior air of the BMW.  The second canister would be a background sample, and placed outside the BMW, would measure volatile organic compounds in the ambient air. The insured agreed this environmental plan was a good idea.  The two representative air samples were taken.

The EPA approved Method #TO-15 was selected for the discovery and identification of volatile organic chemicals.  A stainless steel SUMMA canister with gas chromatograph (GC) is a very useful tool in finding and identifying unknown hydrocarbon particulates in air.  The lab results showed values in parts per billion. The results indicated that exposure to chemicals in the air inside the vehicle were low and well below regulatory action levels.

Testing Report Limit < 5ppbv

Quantitative ppbv

Exterior 

ug/m3

Interior

ug/m3

Propylene 3.2
Freon (Dichlorodifluoromethane) 2.8 2.7
Chloromethane 1.2 1.2
n-Butadine 2.0 2.3
Ethanol 5.7 5.4
Isopropyl Alcohol 3.0  
Acetone 14 19
2-Butanone (MEK) 2.2 3.3
1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene 3.8
Benzene   2.0

 

Propylene vapors were detected inside the BMW at 3.2 ug/m3, which our expert believed were derived from active ingredients found in industrial soaps used for washing the vehicle. These were not at a level which would be immediately dangerous to life or health.  Benzene and 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene, (while extremely hazardous at higher levels), were detectable at 2.0 mg/m3 and 3.8 mg/m3 respectively.  These levels were very low and also not hazardous.  Other interior detectable levels of volatile organic compounds were low and similar to the outdoor samples.  These would normally be derived from fumes created by propylene duct or piping used with air conditioning, refrigeration, or nearby wrapping materials.  No hazardous levels for other chemicals were detected as determined by both the Federal Governmental (OSHA) and State of California (CalOSHA) standards.  While benzene is extremely hazardous at high levels, it is a commonly found industrial hydrocarbon chemical in our environmental air and is not considered harmful at the levels found.

The insured was concerned that he had been exposed to some type of lachrymatory agent. This was explored, and no residual traces of such agent were found.  He had used certain organic cleaning chemicals on his vehicle to remove tear gas.  Normally, when organic types of cleaners are used on the evidence sample, it invalidates or eliminates any real results obtained; this is the most probable finding in this brief environmental evaluation.

Our expert’s conclusions were as follows:

No volatile organic chemicals immediately dangerous to life and health were found as a result of the testing and environmental evaluation conduced.  There are literally thousands of inorganic, metallic, and naturally occurring chemical compounds that can be created by manufacturers for sale and then mixed together either intentionally, for industrial reasons, accidentally, or randomly in nature, in high enough doses, that are dangerous to life and health.  None were found in harmful air quality levels inside the vehicle in this assessment.

More than 2 1/2 months passed before GEI was able to investigate the chemical exposure of the insured. This time period was certainly sufficient for the majority, if not all, of the chemicals to dissipate.  That, and the fact that the interior air filter was replaced and interior surfaces were wiped down with tear gas remover, made finding the identity of the chemicals used to vandalize the BMW a very unlikely possibility.

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