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RTI Stories

A Decade of Environmental Research

"Love Canal helped put RTI on the map"

The 1970s were a fertile time for environmental research at RTI. In 1973, the Environmental Protection Agency hired the Institute to collect and analyze suspected carcinogens and mutagens in the atmosphere. In the course of their research, RTI chemists developed the first-ever methods to simultaneously identify hundreds of volatile organic compounds in effluents and ambient air, in minute traces measured in mere parts per trillion. Three years later, seeking traces of three toxic substances in the atmosphere surrounding an Arkansas chemical plant, RTI scientists identified a soil fumigant, dibromochloropropane, that was determined to cause sterility in men (in later testing, workers at the plant were found to have low or nonexistent sperm counts).

With this kind of success, it's no surprise that the end of the 1970s ushered in a remarkable series of quality-of-life projects at RTI. In February 1978, Institute researchers traveled to Niagara Falls, New York, where residents were complaining about strange odors in their homes. The RTI team had discovered Love Canal, one of the worst (and most intensively publicized) environmental disasters in American history. "Love Canal was extremely important to the history of the institute, putting it on the map for much additional environmental research," said former RTI board chairman William Little.

The EPA now became a major client, granting RTI a contract to operate the Asbestos Information Hotline, part of an EPA program addressing asbestos contamination in public schools. (Human exposure to airborne fibers of asbestos, ubiquitous in building materials like ceiling tiles and insulation, has been linked to lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.) RTI's development of the first nationally accepted methodology for testing the presence of asbestos in building materials guided numerous EPA projects to investigate the efficacy of asbestos sampling, and the Institute's analytical techniques were used at the hundreds of asbestos-testing labs that had sprung up across the country.

Later in 1978, the EPA once again hired RTI to study the range of pollutants produced by different industries, such as the benzene emissions generated by the production of agricultural chemicals. In another study, this time for the chemical company Monsanto, RTI researchers measured the levels of aldicarb (a type of pesticide) in wells on Long Island, New York. And yet a third RTI project tested levels of strontium 90–a radioactive isotope present in the fallout from nuclear explosions–in milk, another subject of national concern.