Alerted to Danger, Town Must Do More

By any measure, a report that at least two East Hampton Town employees may have been sickened after being exposed to fumes from spray-foam insulation barrels they were ordered to prepare for reuse as trash cans is bizarre. Both the worker who blew the whistle and the town safety official who shut it down deserve credit. But this risky, and probably illegal, practice has been going on for years, which suggests that far more oversight of some town departments is necessary.

This particular incident is stunning in its details. According to a town employee, he was sent to pick up about 25 steel barrels from an insulation company, which has so far not been publicly identified. Next, he was told to cut them open, get rid of their remaining contents by dumping it on the ground, and then flush the insides with water. One of the employees told a supervisor he was not comfortable doing so, but was simply told to get it done. The town has ordered soil tests to determine the extent of the contamination. 

The man who came into closest contact with the barrel contents reported feeling lightheaded and nauseated while working with them in a Town Parks Department garage. Later, he experienced respiratory constriction, tingling, and hair loss, symptoms that appeared to have been caused by the chemicals. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one of the spray-foam compounds can cause breathing problems and affect the central nervous system. Other components are associated with asthma, eye problems, and allergy-like sensitization. 

Anecdotally, the town apparently has over the years used several types of industrial barrels in place of proper trash cans intended for the purpose. A reader this week sent us a photograph of a rusty Shell Oil drum repurposed and filled with garbage at a beach parking lot. There must be more. For a town that prides itself on a certain ecological consciousness, this is an embarrassment. A check of all the town’s roughly 300 barrel trash cans has been ordered, which is important but far from enough. Accountability for those who ordered the spray-foam barrels reused and their contents poured on the ground is essential, as is a review of department protocols to assure that they meet modern health and safety standards — and the law.