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Former Use and Nearby Sites

ATSDR has worked on dozens of sites where ECE programs were adversely affected because of contamination on the site or from nearby sites. Often, the ECE programs were placed on these problematic sites without anyone spotting the potential for environmental exposure until after the children were exposed. Sometimes this exposure might have been avoided if someone had asked, “what was this site used for in the past?” and “what is nearby?” These questions can be a simple starting point to determine if a site is a good choice for an ECE program.

Any site that once had known or suspected use, storage, or dumping of hazardous materials deserves scrutiny. Contaminants can stay on a site long after the activities that caused the contamination have stopped. Some sites can be easily identified because they appear on a list (federal or state) of known contaminated sites. Other sites are harder to identify because the contamination on the site has not yet been characterized. Identifying these “not yet known” sites requires some extra investigation to determine past uses of the site. Along with outdoor contamination, consider possible contamination inside any structures on the site. A structure known to have housed industrial or manufacturing activities deserves careful consideration to ensure that no contamination from those activities remains in the building. For example, ATSDR worked on a former mill site where space inside the building was rented to a batting cage business that catered to children. Former manufacturing in the building had left chemical contamination in the soil under the building. These chemicals included perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE). Indoor air concentrations of PCE and TCE from vapors traveling up from the soil into the building were high enough to alarm parents and cause the business to relocate.

Some buildings are easier to identify as potentially problematic than are others. For example, a building that looks like an old mill or that has large delivery doors on loading docks is likely a building that was not initially designed to have children occupying it. Past uses of other buildings might not be so obvious. For example, a funeral home might have been located in what now appears to be just an old house.

Contamination on an ECE site can also come from a nearby site. Some chemical contaminants can migrate onto the ECE site in groundwater, surface water, or air.

Proximity to a contaminated site is not the only factor in determining if an ECE program is properly located. Another factor is the potential for exposure to the contaminants. For example, if soil two feet below the surface on a nearby site is contaminated, but the site is fenced, and children have no contact with that soil, then the children are not being exposed to those contaminants in that soil. However, if an ECE program is located in a building that also houses a dry cleaner, children could be exposed to chemicals in the air, depending on how air moves through the building or where the exhaust exits.

Contaminants from nearby sites can also lead to exposures on an ECE program site by moving through groundwater and creating an indoor air hazard from vapor intrusion. Vapor intrusion is the process by which contamination in the soil or groundwater enters indoor air spaces. Some hazardous substances, such as VOCs, are more likely to create an indoor air hazard than others. If soil or groundwater contamination is suspected, the possibility of vapor intrusion should be considered for any occupied structures on the ECE site.

For more information on vapor intrusion, see the ATSDR fact sheets available at

Based on experience working on contaminated sites, ATSDR developed a list of site activities that warrant special attention to ensure an ECE program site is safe for children (Appendix E). The list includes examples of sites where past activities on the site and adjacent activities to an ECE program might be of concern. Some sites not included on this list might also present a hazard to children. Additionally, as research and science progress, existing hazards might be more fully characterized, and new hazards might be discovered.

Asking the questionswhat was on this site in the past?andwhat is adjacent to the site?are critical steps to determining if a location is safe for an ECE program.