Contaminant Sleuth Robert S. Harris
detects toxins in food, wine, soil
Reprinted with permission from Sonoma Business Magazine, June 1998
"After two years of work, they collected four ounces of oil." Regulators default to their "rule books," but the books do not take into consideration all possible chemical phenomena.
Years ago at a Modesto winery, a pesticide called DBCP had contaminated some of the wine. The chemical was suspected of causing male infertility, among other ailments. Though only tiny amounts were thought to be present in the wine, not enough to be smelled or tasted, toxicologist Robert Harris was hired to perform a chemical analysis of the wine. His laboratory was able to detect the pesticide down to .01 parts per billion--the equivalent of one second in 3,200 years. "You can't taste that," says Harris, who holds a master's degree in biochemistry, "but it's enough, as it accumulates, to eventually have an impact on you.
It was later discovered that the DBCP had entered the wine through the winery's water supply, which had been contaminated from the heavy pesticide spraying in the agrarian Central Valley. The poisoned wine was discarded and the problem rectified.
Testing food and wine is just one chemical feat in Harris's bag of tricks. He is a partner in Santa Rosa's Harris & Lee Environmental Sciences, LLC. In another case, Harris was hired by a Sonoma County winery to test for possible contamination. The winery stored its wine in large stainless steel vats with "jackets" on the outside which circulate a coolant. The winery had reason to believe that some of the coolant had leaked into the wine and hired Harris to test it. He detected the coolant in several vats, and the wine was destroyed. Harris characterizes wineries as "fairly conservative" with their manufacturing process, testing wine if there is even a slight suspicion of contamination.
Harris formerly owned a Santa Rosa-based laboratory called Multi-Tech where he tested foods and wines for toxic residues. While oenologists at wineries closely monitor wine throughout the production process, toxicologists like Harris are called when a foreign substance is suspected. Harris has worked for most of the major wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties.
Makers of food and drink face tremendous legal exposure if their products cause food poisoning, says Harris. Despite the often-used defense by restauranteurs that customers did not suffer food poisoning but were coming down with the flu, Harris asserts that cases of food poisoning are not difficult to prove. Certain viruses can only be transferred through food, he says, so if someone shows symptoms of the virus, there may be no other way the person could have acquired it.
Today Harris is primarily an environmental consultant, testing soil instead of food. Harris works for attorneys, banks, insurance companies and real estate developers, offering expert testimony and writing legally defensible chemical analysis reports.
Several years ago Marv Soiland, a former client of Harris's, was developing a 13-acre piece of land north of the Santa Rosa Airport. He had already spent $100,000 to clean up what he was told was motor oil, considered an environmental health hazard. Harris ran some tests and soon surmised that the substance was not motor oil. It turned out that the property was near a cabinetmaker's shop, which emitted large amounts of sawdust into the air. The sawdust blew onto the land and, its decaying chemical composition was read by the previous laboratory as motor oil. Harris says Soiland shrugged his shoulders and chalked up the $100,000 blunder to experience.
"We see a lot of things like that," states Harris, "where sites appear to be contaminated, and they're not. Or if they are contaminated, is there a real risk there?" Harris works frequently for Exchange Bank and National Bank of the Redwoods. Federal statutes provide that if a bank lends on a commercial property that later turns out to be contaminated, the bank faces reduced liability if it shows that it performed an adequate level of due diligence before finalizing the loan. This includes investigating the history and uses of the property as well as testing it for pollution. "If they don't do anything," says Harris of banks, "then they can inherit the liability because they were reckless."
Harris's reports must be legally defensible, which means they must stand up to certain scientific criteria. Harris was once hired by Mendocino-based Thanksgiving Coffee Company, which suspected contamination from the chemical it uses to de-caffeinate its coffee. Harris performed a series of tests on the coffee, including a test of the sample, a test on a "blank" (everything in the process but the sample itself) and a test on the sample, after deliberately adding the chemical he was looking for, to make sure he found it.
Today Harris doesn't get dirty collecting soil samples or don a white lab coat and spend long hours with advanced scientific instruments. Instead he oversees projects like a field marshal and analyzes the findings.
If a remedial program must be instigated, the first task is to remove the source of contamination. Some removal processes involve a combination of blowing air into the soil at one end and vacuuming it up at the other. Other techniques involve sending micro-organisms into the ground to clean up the contaminant. All remedial techniques must be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Nobody just runs out and starts drilling holes and pumping air," he says.
Federal regulators are "great people!" Harris says with an ironic laugh. "I'd say the vast majority of the time," he adds in a more serious tone, "the regulators really make a sincere effort to understand the problem and deal with it appropriately. But it's also true that sometimes their judgment calls are questionable, and you wonder what they're based on."
There is often infighting in the environmental industry between civil engineers, geologists and the few chemists like Harris. But the issues at hand primarily involve chemical phenomena based on what exactly is the contaminant and whether or not it is a viable hazard.
One such contamination contention involved a legal case in which a large organization spent nearly $2 million to clean up some toxic soil. Harris says the organization's engineers said it was necessary to remove some oil that had leaked from an oil tank decades previously. The land was beneath a multi-story commercial building. After two years of sucking the soil, "they pulled out a grand total of about four ounces," says Harris, pointing to his half-empty cup of coffee for emphasis.
Petroleum occurs naturally on the earth and forms the basis for many subterranean micro-organisms, Harris explains. It generally degrades over time, but under certain conditions it can polymerize and become tar. When tar mixes with dirt, it becomes asphalt. So the company had been trying to vacuum up asphalt, something akin to raising the dead. "They could suck to the middle of the next millennium, and they'd never get it out," he says. Harris testified to prove that the petroleum had become asphalt, which is not considered toxic; and as far as he knows, the case was then closed.
Regulators default to their "rule books," but the books do not take into consideration all possible chemical phenomena, notes Harris.
Since Harris is often the bearer of bad news, dealing with people is often more challenging than analyzing chemical data, he notes. "Some people have a shoot-the-messenger mentality," he says. "It's like the accountant who tells his client he has to pay a lot of taxes, so the client gets mad at the accountant. I've had cases where clients went absolutely ballistic on me and blamed me for the problem."
Harris says he feels great sympathy for his clients when he tells them they'll need to spend $50,000 for something they can neither see nor smell, and the only reason they know it is there is because he told them so. "Candidly, this profession is not very well-respected," he says. "Most people see environmental consultants as kind of like leeches."
He considers global warming and ozone depletion to be earth's most serious environmental problems, and petroleum contamination the most overrated. "A lot of people have had to pay a lot of money to clean up things that probably could have been left alone. The regulatory community, which is driven by the political community, has been a little overzealous in pursuing underground tanks," he says.
Harris concedes that many properties have environmental risks. As an extreme example, Harris notes the detection of PCBs on both polar ice caps. "Man has left his mark from the bottom of the deepest oceans to the tops of the highest mountains. We spread contamination all over the globe."
Located in Sonoma County, California Harris works for attorneys, banks, insurance companies and real estate developers, offering expert testimony and writing legally defensible chemical analysis reports.
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