35 Years After Binghamton’s Dioxin Disaster
What started as an electrical fire 35 years ago in Binghamton's tallest building, turned into what often is regarded as the nation's first big indoor environmental disaster.
The blaze in the Binghamton State Office Building broke out just before 5:30 a.m. on February 5, 1981.
A transformer hidden away in a basement mechanical room was filled with a coolant containing PCBs. The burning coolant released toxic dioxins. The chemicals spread through the structure when hatches at the top of the building were opened in an effort to vent smoke from the fire.
Interior surfaces throughout the 18-story building were coated with a sticky, dangerous soot. The tower - which had opened less than a decade earlier - remained closed for nearly 5,000 days until a comprehensive cleanup and testing effort was completed.
Hundreds of people, including firefighters and state workers who had been allowed to retrieve items left in the building, may have been exposed to the chemicals.
Dr. Arnold Schecter, who was Broome County health commissioner at the time, urged caution because of the potential threat posed by the contamination. He eventually left the Binghamton area and became a well-known expert on the health effects dioxins.
Frustration over the building's closure and an expected costly cleanup led Governor Hugh Carey to suggest that the health concerns of state employee unions were "overblown"
A few weeks after the fire, Carey volunteered to go into the building and "swallow an entire glass of PCBs." He said he would "then run a mile afterwards." The governor never followed through on the offer.
The total cost of the remediation work and the cleanup of the building has been estimated at $53 million. That compares to the original $17 million cost of constructing the tower.
The building officially reopened on October 11, 1994.
UPDATE: Dr. Arnold Schecter will discuss the Binghamton State Office Building fire and the impact it had on the world on WNBF Radio's Binghamton Now program at 10:30 Monday morning. The interview originally had been scheduled for Friday.
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