If you haven’t already read Part 1 of this mini-series, please do so before reading this post; what follows will make more sense.

But first, a rant on home owner’s insurance policies.  For your sake, I hope you never need your home owner’s insurance.  You know all those warm fuzzy ads on TV with clever bylines like: “You’re in good hands” or “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” Yeah, well good luck with that, because if your foundation is crumbling and your house is starting to collapse, those good hands won’t be writing you any claims checks.  But the companies do come up with clever sales slogans and with creative reasons for denying claims.  And that’s what this post is about.

Discovering the Damage, My First Claim, and Rejection

As you recall from Part 1, on an otherwise normal trip to the basement of my Ellington, Connecticut home in 2005, I discovered the concrete walls were literally disintegrating; this may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not.  Fortunately, working with a bunch of talented engineers at OTO got me going in the right direction.  My co-worker Mike Talbot, PE made an emergency house-call to my basement the next day.  His prognosis was not good.  “I’ve never seen anything like this before.  You better get Rob Johnson, a structural engineer and friend of mine to look at this”.

When Rob saw the basement he was uncertain about the precise cause of the problem, but not about what needed to be done: “You need to immediately install bracing to prevent an imminent collapse of the house and you better start planning for the replacement of the entire foundation … soon. Because whatever the cause, this concrete is toast”.  Getting quick, knowledgeable advice from solid engineers was both depressing and extremely helpful.  At least we didn’t waste time and money with useless attempts at a fix.

As reality sunk in, and I got a sense of just how disruptive and expensive the replacement project was going to be, I called my insurance agent to make a claim.  I sent him photographs of the crumbling concrete, a copy of the Rob’s report, and told him he could visit any time.  He said he would forward the information to the insurance company and they would contact me.

The insurance company assigned an adjuster and retained a consulting engineer to review the information and visit the property.  A couple of weeks later I received the first of what would be three rejection letters.  The letter stated that the failure of the concrete foundation was due to the pressure of groundwater and/or the action of frost against the foundation.  The letter explained that my policy contained an exclusion for damage caused by water, and as much as they would sincerely like to help, they had to deny any liability for my loss.

Picture this – there were eighth to half-inch wide cracks that went clear through the foundation walls to the soil on the other side.  Lots of them. Yet not a drop of water had ever come through those cracks.  The insurer’s engineer had seen these cracks.  How could groundwater with sufficient pressure to crack 12 inch thick hardened concrete walls not also cause water to come gushing through those cracks?  Seemed like a good question to me. Although not one that interested the insurance company.

Since I’m a curious kind of guy I wanted to know the answer (this was before we had the results of the petrographic analysis).  The only way to find out was to do a little groundwater study, so I had monitoring wells installed around the house.  This turned out to be the first of several pricey out-of-pocket research projects to satisfy my curiosity. Mrs. Okun was not wholly enthusiastic about the cost of these projects.

Once the monitoring wells had been installed and water levels were measured, it became apparent that the water table was too deep for groundwater to be pressuring the foundation; the insurer’s engineer readily agreed.  At that point I was still naïve enough to believe that the insurance company would welcome this new information and my claim check would be forthcoming. Hah!!!

Second Claim, and Rejection

So while the insurance company was developing their first rejection letter, we asked our engineer to move ahead with collecting concrete core samples and conducting the petrographic analysis needed to identify the cause of the failure. This was another pricey item, but my curiosity was demanding an answer.  It took a little while to get the results, but they were definitive: the presence of the mineral pyrrhotite in the concrete’s coarse aggregate had caused the concrete to fail.  Part 1 of this mini-series discusses the hazard pyrrhotite poses to concrete in more detail.

I forwarded the petrographic results and the groundwater level measurements to the insurance company and asked them to reconsider my claim.  Their first engineer was not well versed in concrete chemistry, so the insurer retained a concrete specialist to review the petrographic report.  This second engineer concluded that the problem with our foundation was due to sulfate in the groundwater around the house.  In case you are curious, the new engineer did no testing of the groundwater to confirm this hypothesis. It’s a small world of engineers who know concrete chemistry and I had considered hiring this same engineer to do my petrographic analysis; I’m glad I didn’t.

Well, the insurer once again rejected our claim for a bunch of legalistic reasons and because in their opinion the collapse – which to them was not legally a real collapse – was caused by sulfate in the groundwater around our house.

Third and Final Claim Rejection

Fortunately, sampling the monitoring wells that were already installed to test for sulfate was easy and cheap.    So I wasted no time getting this done.  No surprises here, groundwater sulfate concentrations around my house were exactly the same as the published background levels for sulfate in north central Connecticut where the house is located. 

As you would expect, I sent the information on groundwater sulfate concentrations to my insurer with a bunch of legal arguments and asked them to again reconsider our claim.  I broke the claim into seven parts to make it easier for the adjuster to understand, not that this mattered.

Over time the pyrrhotite induced deterioration of the concrete caused the basement walls to expand, which pushed the outer walls of the house upward.  This irregular upward movement causes windows and doors to get stuck in their casings so they will not easily open or close.  This damage symptom was one of the parts of the claim I made.  Here’s the insurer’s response to that part of the claim, verbatim:

The Insurance Company’s Engineer Mr. Smith, PE, has determined that only a portion of the damage to the upper floors resulted from the movement of the foundation.  There has not been any structural impairment of the upper floors and therefore, these portion of the upper floors have not collapsed as that term is defined in Beach v. Middlesex Mutual Assurance Company.  Therefore, for the reasons stated above, any portions of the upper floors which have sustained a loss, which loss was not caused by any movement of the foundation is not covered by the additional coverage for “collapse”.  Furthermore, the collapse coverage specifically provides that “collapse does not include settling, cracking, shrinking, bulging or expansion.”  Also, there is no coverage for this loss because exclusion 2.h.(6) quoted above excludes a loss “caused by: … settling, shrinking, bulging or expansion, including resultant cracking of pavements, patios, foundations, walls, floors, roofs or ceilings.”  However, those portions of the upper floors which may have sustained damage because of the collapse to the foundation may be covered as “direct physical loss to covered property involving a collapse of a building or part of a building (the foundation) caused only by one or more of the following…defective materials…”  Therefore, the Insurance Company will cover the repairs to the openings, windows, doors or walls of the upper which are related to the movement of the foundation.

After I read that last sentence, I reread it about ten times.  I thought, “Well I’ll be!” They have finally agreed to cover something, because to fix the damage to the upper floors, it would first be necessary to fix the foundation! Yes!  All this effort is finally going to pay off! 

When I called the insurance adjuster in the morning to coordinate the next step, he explained that I had misunderstood their letter.  That last sentence in the paragraph where it sounded like they were going to cover some of the damage, I got that wrong.  That language was their way of letting me know they weren’t going to cover anything, because as I had surmised, the only way to fix the upper floors was to fix the foundation, and they weren’t going to cover that at all.


Last three thoughts for this post:

  1. In addition to the claim for damage to the upper floors, part of my final claim was for the reimbursement of engineering and testing costs, here’s their response to that: “The policy terms relating to loss payment do not provide coverage for engineering and testing fees to determine the basis for the loss and there are no engineering or testing fees required to determine the nature and extent of the repairs to any upper portions of the structure for which there may be coverage”. That was galling after all the fake technical arguments they had thrown at me.
  2. Ultimately with the help of a good attorney we entered mediation with the insurer and received a settlement for some of our costs, for which we remain grateful.
  3. Having a solid technical background was immensely helpful as was having access to the talented engineers at OTO and in the broader out-of-OTO network.

Stay tuned for Part 3, what it’s like to have your home’s foundation replaced.

In 1989 my family and I moved from a pleasant Boston suburb to rural Ellington in north central Connecticut. We loved Ellington and quickly made good friends, primarily the parents from our daughter’s play group. Our house was set on 5 acres of mostly forested land, I installed a playground set with swings for the kids and we had many enjoyable times. Life was good, or so it seemed.

However, unbeknownst to us, something insidious was happening to our house that was beyond our wildest imaginings; the concrete support structure (i.e. the foundation) was quietly crumbling away beneath our feet. Who even knew that this was possible? I’m an environmental chemist with a lot of experience and the idea that concrete could literally corrode away over the course of a few years was news to me.

It’s Even Worse than You Thought

In 2005 during a routine trip to the basement I stopped to look at the concrete walls and it became apparent that something was very wrong. Big vertical, horizontal and diagonal cracks had opened up in the concrete walls and the formerly solid concrete had become shockingly friable – you could easily extract a piece of concrete with your hand and rub it to dust between your hands. There was also a snowy-white efflorescence covering most of the walls.

The next day at work I told OTO’s senior engineer Mike Talbot about what I had observed and asked him to take a look. When he did he was dumbfounded and recommended that I have a structural engineer friend of his, Rob Johnson, come by to give his opinion.

A few days later Rob was in the basement saying that he was uncertain what the precise cause of the problem was, but I needed to immediately hire a contractor to install temporary shoring to forestall the imminent collapse of the house. This was bad enough, but the next piece of news from Rob was even worse: I needed to start making plans for the total replacement of the basement walls and foundation footings because the concrete was clearly disintegrating rapidly.

Rob sketched up some plans for me to give to the contractor and soon we had these large wooden supports holding up the basement walls. Speculating, Rob suggested the underlying problem with the concrete could be ASR (alkali-silica reaction), but to find out for sure would require collecting concrete core samples and the petrographic analysis of the cores. Petrographic analysis involves making thin slices from the cores, staining them, and reviewing them under a special microscope.

Concrete coring, showing wall damage

Pyrrhotite Revealed

While we were not this first ones in the area to have a problem with crumbling concrete, to my knowledge, we were the very first to collect core samples for petrographic analysis.

When we got the lab results back it turned out, there was no ASR in the core samples, instead the problem was the presence of pyrrhotite in the concrete’s coarse aggregate.

To put this all in an understandable context, it’s helpful to know a little bit about concrete. Concrete is made from four basic ingredients: cement, sand, coarse aggregate (eg small stones), and water. Concrete is a very strong and durable building material (think Roman Colosseum), but there are two types of stress that concrete cannot tolerate: corrosive acids and tension forces. It turns out that pyrrhotite provides both of these stressors in abundance.

Pyrrhotite is basically a chemically unstable form of iron pyrite, made up of iron and sulfur. When pyrrhotite is mined out of the ground and is exposed to air and moisture, it begins a long slow degradation reaction. As the pyrrhotite degradation progresses, the sulfur turns into sulfuric acid and the iron becomes the mineral hematite. Any exposure to acid is bad news for concrete, but sulfuric acid is by far the worst. It immediately begins to dissolve the cement paste that binds the other concrete ingredients together.

The problem with hematite, which is effectively a type of ferric oxide or rust, is that it takes up more space in the concrete matrix than was occupied by the pyrrhotite it replaced. This results in internal pressure and expansionary forces. These expansionary forces are more than the acid-weakened concrete can withstand and massive cracking begins to appear. At first the cracks are narrow, but they soon expand to an inch or more across. What I saw on my trip to the basement that day was the characteristic cracking pattern referred to as “map cracking”, so named because the irregular cracking resemble roads on a map.

As the cracks widen, the basement walls effectively grow taller, which pushes the sides of the house upwards. Windows no long open and close and doors become crooked, no longer able to shut. The sides of the house became higher than the middle of the rooms. Welcome to Alice in Wonderland.

As has now been shown by so many homes and other buildings in north central Connecticut and south central Massachusetts, the pyrrhotite containing aggregate originating from Becker’s quarry in Willington, CT has laid to waste real estate values.

What’s next?

This story is getting long, but it wouldn’t be complete without the parts about the so-called insurance company (names changed to protect the unbelievably unhelpful), and the parts about the actual reconstruction of the foundation and basement walls. So stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 – and BTW, yes this all really happened to us and it is still happening to many folks in north central Connecticut and south central Massachusetts.

Over the past year there have been a number of articles published about reproductive risks to orcas (killer whales) posed by PCBs (example articles 1, 2, and 3).  Some of these articles go so far as to claim that orcas are threatened with extinction due to their reproduction being inhibited by PCBs.

But do PCBs really pose really pose an extinction risk to orcas?  Or have these authors used limited information to draw conclusions that are out of proportion with the actual science?  With this post I want to consider what we know about orcas and PCBs and evaluate whether the warnings in these recent articles are realistic.

orcas photo


Orca Characteristics and Behavior

Orcas are among the top predators in the ocean.  They are not true whales, instead they are the largest member of the dolphin family.  Although all orcas belong to the same species, scientists that study them group them into three subpopulations (resident, transient and offshore) based on their behavior.  As you would guess, resident orcas live in near-shore locations and remain there for their entire lives, they eat either fish or other marine mammals.

The transient orcas remain close to shore, but migrate along the coast in the pursuit of prey, which consists of mostly of other marine mammals.  Offshore orcas are the least well known, but they live and feed far from shore and are believed to feed on sharks and other large fish or marine mammals.  Although all three groups belong to the same species, they do not interbreed or otherwise mix socially despite being considered highly social within their own group.  As a species, orcas are generally not considered endangered.

Almost everything we know about orcas comes from studies of resident populations because they are relatively easy to monitor.  Possibly the most carefully studied orca group (known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales), lives in the waters of the Pacific Northwest, off the coast of Washington state and southern British Columbia.  Two other closely monitored resident orca groups are: a pod residing off the west coast of Scotland (known as the West Coast Community); and the Northern Resident group, which lives off the more northerly coast of British Columbia.

Orca Population Decline

While the (North American) Southern Resident and (Scottish) West Coast Community groups are different in many ways, both are now experiencing population decline.  In the case of the Southern Resident group, which now has 75 individuals, scientists concluded the decline is due to the reduction in their nearly exclusive food source, Chinook salmon.  Scientists have found a close link between orcas’ annual reproductive success and the abundance of Chinook salmon in their home waters.  A recent decline in the salmon population is believed to have resulted in the orcas expending more effort to achieve an adequate diet and having less reproductive success.  These scientists are hopeful that the key to increasing the Southern Resident group’s population is changing the salmon fishery management to ensure the orcas receive adequate nutrition.

In contrast, the West Coast Community orca group off of Scotland may indeed be on the path to extinction.  This group consists of four-females and four-males, a total of 8 individuals, with no new births in the group in 25 years.  In fact, the group was recently reduced when an older female died after becoming entangled in fishing lines.  Scientists speculate that the remaining females may now be too old to give birth.  There is no agreed upon cause for the reproductive failure of the West Coast Community orcas, however, speculation has whirled around the idea that PCBs may have caused a lack of fertility among the females as a result of its ability to mimic estrogen.

PCBs and Orcas

One report that sheds considerable light on the question of PCBs and orca reproduction is a 2000 Institute of Ocean Studies article, which describes a study in which scientists collected fat samples from 47 live, wild orcas off the coast of British Columbia and tested these samples for PCBs, furans and dioxins.  The samples were collected from transient orcas as well as individuals form the Southern and Northern Resident Groups (note that the Northern Resident Group is distinct from the Southern Resident orcas, but there is some overlap of their territories of the coast of British Columbia).  This study is among the most comprehensive investigations of PCBs in orcas.

The study had three important findings relative to orca reproduction:

  1. The study found all of the orcas sampled had surprisingly high concentrations of PCBs in their fatty tissue. The transient and Northern Resident orcas had higher PCB concentrations than the Southern Residents.  This is believed to be attributable to their different diets.  Transient and Northern Residents consume primarily marine mammals and Southern Residents consume primarily salmon.  Salmon has significantly lower PCB concentrations than do the marine mammals preyed on by the orcas.
  2. In each of the three populations the adult males had significantly higher PCB concentrations (and presumably higher PCB body burdens) than did the adult females. Since their diet and thus their potential PCB exposures are the same, the only explanation for this is that the adult females transfer their PCB body burden to their young during gestation and after birth through their milk when nursing.  Because the fat content of orca milk is high, and because this fat carries the PCBs accumulated by the mother, these PCBs are transferred to the nursing young.  It is estimated that 60% of the mother orca’s PCB body burden is transferred to their young by nursing.  The transfer of PCBs from mothers to their young is seen in other mammals as well.
  3. The concentrations of dioxins, furans and dioxin-like PCBs in the orca fat samples were less than anticipated based on the relatively high concentration of non-dioxin like PCBs. The authors suggest that this finding may explain how the orcas could tolerate such high PCB body burdens, without experiencing adverse effects such as reproductive failure.  The authors speculate that the more toxic dioxins, furans and PCBs may have been metabolized by other animals lower on the food chain such that only the less toxic and more chemically stable PCBs are actually passed on to the orcas in their food.


The objective of this post was to consider whether the available scientific evidence supports the claim that PCBs may drive orcas to extinction as a result of reproductive failure.  It is undeniably true that orcas carry high PCB body burdens, and that these PCBs are the result of their diet, whether that diet consists of fish or marine mammals.  However, based on the 2000 Institute of Ocean Studies report, it does not appear that high PCB body burdens are contributing to reproductive failure in the populations studied.

As odd as it may seem, some of the strongest evidence for orca reproductive success from this study is the much lower PCB concentrations found in the adult females compared to those detected in the adult males.  Since the PCB exposure of the females and males are similar (they all derive PCBs from their diet), the consistent large differences in concentration in their fat tissue can only be explained by the transfer of the adult female’s PCBs to their young.   Sexually immature females and males have similar PCB concentrations.  But, upon reaching reproductive age, the female’s PCB concentrations drop, while the male’s PCB concentration continues to increase with age.

The study data indicates that the orcas continue to reproduce successfully among the transient and the resident orca populations on the North American west coast despite their high PCB body burdens.  In other words, the PCBs do not appear to be adversely impacting the orca’s reproduction.

It may not be appropriate to extrapolate the results of the North American orca/PCB study to the decline of Scotland’s West Coast Community group.  However, the study clearly does not provide support for the contention that PCBs are causing a worldwide decline in orca population.