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Army Corps of Engineers, Project Updates | Archive

March 23, 2001

American University Update: Information about the Army Corps of Engineers’ Project at American University

INTRODUCTION—American University’s Commitment to the Campus Community

American University has been involved in an environmental investigation due to the presence of materials left over from World War I research and testing by the U.S. Army. During the sampling and testing of the soil on campus, some areas were found to contain elevated levels of arsenic. The University’s primary concern throughout the process has been to ensure the health and safety of our students, faculty and all the members of the AU community. Toward that end, the University sponsored an arsenic testing program for AU students, staff, athletes, and children who attend our Child Development Center (CDC), AU’s on-campus daycare center.

American University President Dr. Benjamin Ladner has assigned senior members of the AU staff to facilitate the testing and clean-up process, as well as communicate findings and progress to the campus community as information becomes available. Many of these staff members have been relieved of other duties in order to continue to give the issue the attention and commitment it deserves. Members of this group, known as the university work group, interact with faculty, Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps’) representatives and community members on a regular basis to address concerns and plan next steps. The University has also retained Dr. Paul Chrostowski, a leading environmental health scientist trained in toxicology and epidemiology, to offer guidance through this complex process.

The information in this fact sheet is a general overview of the Corps’ work and steps that the University has taken, and will continue to take, to ensure the safety of the entire AU community.

BACKGROUND—The Army Corps of Engineers’ Project

As many people already know, arsenic has been found on the southern portion of AU’s campus. It is a gray, metal-like substance that occurs naturally in soil, water, and in the foods we eat. Arsenic has been used widely in the manufacture of agricultural and wood preservation products designed to control insects, weeds, and other pests that damage crops and goods.

The arsenic found on the University’s property and in other areas of Spring Valley is likely a result of World War I era warfare research and testing. The War Department’s facility, known as the American University Experiment Station, experimented with arsenic and a number of arsenic-based compounds. A compound called Lewisite was one of the agents tested for use during the war. Lewisite breaks down through natural processes into arsenic.

The War Department used the Experiment Station from 1917-1919. By 1921, the Department had removed the buildings and other temporary structures, disposed of items that were no longer useful, and restored the area in a manner that was common for the time period. The Corps is now responsible for addressing any compounds that remain from the War Department’s testing and disposal activities in the Spring Valley area, including those on AU’s property.

The Corps has conducted sampling on 28 lots on the southern portion of the AU campus. Preliminary results show that seven lots have arsenic levels in the soil above 13 parts per million (ppm). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established 13 ppm as the screening level for arsenic.

This level represents the level of arsenic that can normally be expected in this geographic area. The Corps will conduct additional sampling at the lots with elevated levels as part of its investigation.

One of the areas with elevated levels of arsenic is the CDC. The University has relocated the daycare center as a precautionary measure. More information on the daycare center is described under the section "University Actions" in this fact sheet.

In January, the Corps excavated soil behind the Hamilton building. No WWI warfare materiel was found; however, small amounts of lead and mercury were found at the bottom of the excavation pit. The Corps began a follow-up excavation on March 12, 2001, to ensure removal of the lead and mercury. The Corps will take soil samples after this excavation to ensure levels of arsenic, lead, and mercury are below risk-based standards set by EPA. The soil removed during this excavation poses no risk to people.

The Corps also has completed work on two burial areas in the South Korean Ambassador’s yard, which adjoins the campus behind the Watkins and Kreeger buildings. Munitions, glass containers, and elevated levels of arsenic in the soil were found. This area was excavated and filled in with new soil.

Preliminary sampling results of the intramural fields behind Watkins have shown elevated levels of arsenic. As a precautionary measure, the fields have been closed until further sampling has been conducted. More information on the intramural fields is described under the section "University Actions" below.

In addition to the areas described above, elevated levels of arsenic have been found in several subsurface locations along Nebraska Avenue. The Corps will sample the entire area along Nebraska Avenue from Gray Hall to Ward Circle as part of its continuing investigation.

UNIVERSITY ACTIONS—AU’s Commitment to Moving the Corps’ Project Forward

In the course of the testing program on campus, seven lots, or testing areas, were found to contain elevated levels of arsenic in the soil. The total area of the seven lots is approximately equal to 2.5 times the size of a football field. One of these lots was in the area containing the CDC. University officials have been in constant contact with parents of CDC children and CDC staff members since preliminary sampling results were received from the Corps. Within 90 minutes of the University receiving the preliminary sampling results, President Ladner decided to relocate the CDC as a precautionary measure. CDC staff called parents to inform them of the relocation. University staff worked into the night to relocate the CDC to Leonard Hall so that it would be ready for children the next morning. The daycare center will remain in Leonard Hall until after the Corps completes excavation around the CDC building. The University has been working with parents and CDC staff to ensure that the children have everything they need to feel comfortable in their temporary location.

Due to health considerations, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conducted medical testing for the children currently enrolled in the CDC and for CDC staff. The University decided to sponsor its own medical testing because children who attended the CDC in the past 12 months, but who are not currently enrolled at the daycare center, were not included in ATSDR's program. The University worked with Washington Occupational Health Associates, as recommended by our expert Dr. Chrostowski, to perform the tests for children and staff currently at the CDC, and children and staff who have been at the CDC during the past 12 months. In addition, AU groundskeepers and athletes who use the intramural fields were given the option to be tested.

The Corps took additional samples to evaluate the intramural fields on March 12, 2001. If any elevated levels are found during sampling at the athletic fields, it is likely they will be excavated at the same time as the area around the CDC. The University also has closed the intramural fields as a precautionary measure, as mentioned earlier. The University has reviewed athletic schedules and is working with the coaches to determine alternative playing fields. AU coaches will pass information along on these changes to the athletes.

MEDICAL TESTING and RESULTS—AU’s Commitment to Campus Community Health

AU’s medical testing was performed February 10, 2001, and February 15, 2001. AU received results from the medical testing on February 28, 2001. On March 1, 2001, we reported the summary of test results to the campus community. No one in the test group had elevated levels of arsenic in their system. In most cases, the tests detected no arsenic whatsoever. In some cases, trace amounts of arsenic were detected, but these levels were within the ranges that normally occur in urine or hair among people. The AU community is gratified and relieved by this good news. Due to privacy reasons, however, no individual results will be released publicly.

The University's health plans, Kaiser or Blue Cross/Blue Shield, will cover medical testing for students, faculty, and staff should anyone wish to be tested. Medical tests are optional and each individual is encouraged to make a personal choice as to whether he or she wishes to be tested.

While members of the campus community consider whether they may want medical testing, it is important to note that soil containing elevated levels of arsenic poses no risk by simply walking near it. For arsenic to pose a health risk to people, it would have to be directly ingested, according to EPA studies and studies by other health organizations. Based on the levels appearing at some locations on the southern part of campus, and depending on a person’s physiology, one would have to ingest approximately one tablespoon of affected soil every day for several years to experience adverse health effects, according to Dr. Chrostowski.

Although Dr. Chrostowki does not believe that anyone on AU’s campus would be affected by arsenic, studies show that prolonged ingestion of high levels of inorganic arsenic can cause the potential for skin conditions, irritation to the digestive tract, and perhaps skin cancer. This type of skin cancer is highly treatable and is the type for which President Clinton was recently treated. However, these types of health effects are only possible with high doses over a very long period of time.

It is important to remember that the University uses municipal water, as does the surrounding community. The water supply is routinely tested by the city and has not been impacted by the World War I-era materials, according to DC officials. The city water meets EPA's standards for drinking water.

In our efforts to keep the campus community informed, University officials have held meetings to discuss the Corps’ preliminary sampling results with several groups on campus. These groups include the parents of the CDC students; the groundskeepers; students; faculty members of Watkins, Kreeger, Hamilton and Beeghly Halls; athletic coaches; the student government; and the student body. At these meetings, Dr. Chrostowski, AU’s environmental health specialist, was available to answer questions about arsenic.

As mentioned above, the Corps has agreed to conduct thorough sampling of the campus at the request of the University. University officials attend a standing, monthly meeting with the Corps, EPA, and the D.C. Department of Health to ensure that AU’s concerns are addressed. The University will see that all affected areas of campus are addressed prior to the Corps’ departure from the area.

NEXT STEPS—Upcoming Actions to Help Ensure Safety

The following are upcoming actions to more thoroughly investigate the campus and to help ensure the safety of the campus community.

  • As mentioned above, the Corps will sample the entire area along Nebraska Avenue from Gray Hall to Ward Circle. The University will ensure that Corps’ sampling results are accurate.
  • The Corps’ sampling of the campus will include an analysis of approximately 200 compounds. Some compounds that are included on the list, such as sawdust, do not have associated clean-up standards set by EPA. The Corps will test for every compound that can possibly be tested; some compounds that are used only by the military cannot be tested by commercial laboratories, only military labs. The University is committed, however, to ensuring that the Corps’ sampling and analysis are accurate. We expect to receive the results of this sampling approximately four weeks after the sampling occurs.
  • The University will continue to proactively review the Corps’ work to ensure the safety of our campus community. AU senior staff will continue to meet with the Corps, EPA, and the D.C. Health Department to keep the project moving forward.
  • The University will post a summary of the medical testing results from ATSDR on its website soon. An assessment of the results from the AU-sponsored testing has already been made public in a memo from President Ladner dated March 1, 2001. The written summary results of the AU-sponsored testing will be released shortly. Because of privacy concerns, only a summary of results can be made public.
  • The University is committed to continuing to keep the campus community informed of activities as the Corps’ project moves forward. AU will release additional memos and fact sheets on the Corps’ project. The University also will continue to hold meetings and respond to callers on the information line.

CONTACT INFORMATION—AU's Commitment to Keeping the Campus Community Informed

American University has established an information line specifically to address questions and concerns from the campus community about the Corps’ project at AU. The information line operates from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday. If you call outside of these hours, or if someone is unable to take your call during those hours, please leave a detailed message and your call will be returned as soon as possible. The information line number is 202-885-2020.

The University has also developed a website specifically for the Corps’ project that contains all of the University’s memos to the campus community, as well as other information about the Corps’ project. You can access the website at

The Corps provides updates regularly on its Spring Valley Information Line at 1-800-434-0988 and its web site at Click on Washington DC, and then click on Spring Valley. Additionally, the Corps has established two information repositories that contain documents pertaining to the investigation and cleanup. You may visit the information repository at the Palisades Library at 4901 V Street NW, or contact the library at 202-282-3139. The other repository is located at the Corps of Engineers trailer behind Sibley Memorial Hospital. Please call ahead to make an appointment. The office number is 202-686-3359.

The D.C. Department of Health has also established an information line. You may call the agency at 202-535-1755.