The US Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced a proposed plan to ban all uses of trichloroethylene (TCE), a cancer-causing chemical that is common in manufacturing and can be found in thousands of water sources and properties around the world.
One community that has had significant problems with TCE contamination for years is Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps base in eastern North Carolina. From 1975 through 1985, a time in which the water at the base was known to be contaminated with TCE and other volatile organic compounds, tests showed that TCE levels in the water were 70-fold more than the permissible amount, according to a recent study. The study found that contamination had consequences. Marines stationed there in that time period had a 70% higher risk of Parkinson's disease than veterans who served at a post across the country.
Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against the US government from soldiers and their family members after so much TCE exposure.
Since the 1920s, the ubiquitous environmental contaminant has been one of the most frequently used solvents in industry. TCE is a colorless volatile organic compound that manufactures have used as a cleaning agent and degreaser, mainly for metal. The chemical can also be found in paints, sealants, coatings, and some auto products like 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. Limited remaining commercial and industrial uses would be phased down over a longer period, with stringent worker protections implemented with their use.
Scientists have suspected since the 1960s that exposure to TCE could hurt human health. Around that time it started to fall out of favor, but it is still used in some industrial applications today, and it can hang around 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 a revision to the Toxic Substances Control Act risk determination for TCE, saying it presents an unreasonable risk to human health.
In addition to cancer, studies have found a connection between TCE exposure and liver damage, Parkinson's, problems with the nervous system, reproductive problems and other issues. Most people who are exposed to the chemical get it through their drinking water.
Between 4.5% and 18% of the drinking water supply sources in the US that are tested on a yearly basis by EPA have some TCE contamination, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
If the proposed rule is finalized in its current form, it would ban most uses of the chemical in manufacturing and in the processing of commercial and consumer products. The EPA said there are safer alternatives to TCE available.
In some limited cases, TCE would be phased out of manufacturing, like while making the battery separators used to make batteries for electric vehicles and in the making of some refrigerants. The EPA would also allow some labs to use TCE to help with the cleanup of superfund sites and other areas with TCE contamination. It would also allow TCE in some federal agency uses considered "critical." It would also carve out 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," said EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe in a news release. "The science is loud and clear on TCE. It is a dangerous toxic chemical and proposing to ban it will protect families, workers, and communities."
The Biden administration said that the proposal to end the use of TCE would prevent the future contamination of land and drinking water and would, as Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Michal Freedoff said, give the US the chemical safety protections "the nation deserves."
"For far too long, TCE has left a toxic legacy in communities across America. Today, EPA is taking a major step to protect people from exposure to this cancer-causing chemical," Freedhoff said.
Scott Faber, who leads the government affairs efforts for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that has worked for years to get the government to put more restrictions on chemicals, said today's announcement is an "historic departure from the past."
"While there's 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 is allowed to take such an action, he said, in large part because of reforms that were adopted in 2016 when Congress gave the EPA clear power to ban substances and chemicals like asbestos. Up until then, a 1991 court ruling essentially had 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 piece of legislation updated the Toxic Substances Control Act and gave the EPA more powers to regulate chemicals. The update required the EPA to evaluate existing chemicals and do risk-based chemical assessments, and it gave the agency aggressive deadlines. The legislation also gave the agency funding to carry out the law.
President Donald Trump tried to delay the implementation of the law, but a court ruled that his actions were unlawful.
Under the Biden administration, the EPA is now following the law, Faber said, and using the powers given to it by Congress.
"This couldn't have a clearer example of how elections have consequences for workers and consumers," Faber said.
The EPA said Monday that it will accept public comments on the proposed rule for 45 days and the agency will hold a webinar to discuss the action.
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