The US Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced a proposed plan to ban all uses of trichlorethylene (TCE), a cancer-causing chemical that is common in manufacturing and can be found in thousands of water sources and properties around the world.
Since the 1920s, the ubiquitous environmental pollutant has been one of the most commonly used solvents in industry. TCE is a colorless volatile organic compound that manufacturers have used as a cleaner and degreaser, mainly for metal. The chemical can also be found in paints, sealants, coatings and some automotive products such as brake cleaners. Companies that make refrigerants also use TCE.
The proposed rule would take effect in one year for consumer products and most commercial uses. The remaining restricted commercial and industrial uses will be phased out over a longer period, with strict worker protections in place with their use.
Since the 1960s, scientists have suspected that exposure to TCE could harm human health. Sometime around that time began to fall out of favor but is still used in some industrial applications today and can hang in the air and in groundwater for long periods of time, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In January, the EPA finalized its review of the Toxic Substances Control Act’s risk determination for TCE, saying it poses an unreasonable risk to human health.
In addition to cancer, studies have found links between TCE exposure and liver damage, Parkinson’s disease, nervous system problems, reproductive problems, and other problems. Most people who are exposed to the chemical get it through their drinking water.
Between 4.5% and 18% of US drinking water sources tested annually by the EPA have some TCE contamination, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
If finalized in its current form, the proposed rule would ban most uses of the chemical in the production and processing of commercial and consumer products. The EPA said there are safer alternatives to TCE available.
In some limited cases, TCE will be phased out, such as in the production of battery separators used to make electric vehicle batteries and in the production of some refrigerants. The EPA will also allow some labs to use TCE to help clean up Superfund sites and other areas of TCE contamination. It would also allow TCE in some federal agency uses deemed “critical.” It would also create space for the proper disposal of TCE wastewater for 50 years.
“Today, EPA is taking a vital step in our efforts to advance President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot and protect people from cancer and other serious health risks,” EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe said in a news release. “The science is strong and clear on TCE. It is a dangerous toxic chemical and the proposal to ban it will protect families, workers and communities.
The Biden administration said the proposal to end the use of TCE would prevent future contamination of land and drinking water and, as Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Assistant Administrator Michal Fridoff said, would give the U.S. chemical safety protections. the nation deserves.”
“For too long, TCE has left a toxic legacy in communities across America. Today, the EPA is taking an important step to protect people from exposure to this cancer-causing chemical,” Friedhoff said.
Scott Faber, who leads government affairs efforts for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that has worked for years to push the government to impose more restrictions on chemicals, said today’s announcement was a “historic departure from the past.”
“While there are many more chemicals that should be banned or restricted, today’s announcement is a historic step in the right direction, especially for workers but also for consumers,” Faber said.
The EPA has the right to take such action, he said, in large part because of reforms that were passed in 2016, when Congress gave the EPA clear authority to ban substances and chemicals like asbestos. Until then, a 1991 court ruling essentially limited the EPA’s ability to remove even known hazards like asbestos from the market.
In 2016, when President Barack Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, the bipartisan legislation updated the Toxic Substances Control Act and gave the EPA more authority to regulate chemicals. The update required EPA to evaluate existing chemicals and make risk-based chemical assessments and gave the agency aggressive timelines. The legislation also gave the agency funding to implement the law.
President Donald Trump tried to delay the implementation of the law, but a court ruled that his actions were illegal.
Under the Biden administration, the EPA now follows the law, Faber said, and uses the authority given to it by Congress.
“This could not be a clearer example of how elections have consequences for workers and consumers,” Faber said.
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One community that has had significant problems with TCE contamination for years is Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps base in North Carolina. From 1975 to 1985, a time when the water in the base was known to be contaminated with TCE and other volatile organic compounds, tests showed that TCE levels in the water were 70 times the legal limit, according to a recent study. The study found that pollution has consequences. Marines stationed there during that period had a 70 percent higher risk of Parkinson’s disease than veterans who served at posts across the country.
Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against the US government by soldiers and their family members after so much exposure to TCE.
The EPA said Monday it will accept public comments on the proposed rule for 45 days, and the agency will hold a webinar to discuss the action.