Over the past decade, consumer awareness of the dangers of many commonly used chemicals has increased significantly. Contaminants like microplastics, PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances)- also known as “forever chemicals”, BPA- often found in plastics, and PVC- a polymer used for many household items are just a few of the concerning substances. Recently, TCE (Trichloroethylene) came under fire from the EPA and it was proposed that the substance be banned due to significant health concerns (both immediate and from prolonged exposure).
TCE is used to make refrigerants and solvents that remove grease from metal parts- typical of what is used for auto repair, for example. But even if you don’t dive into your own auto repairs, it doesn’t mean you aren’t exposed. The EPA’s recent risk-evaluation studies found that as much as 250 million pounds of TCE are still produced in the United States annually. The solvent is found in carpet cleaners, laundry spot removers (home use and dry cleaners), cleaning wipes, aerosol cleaning products, paint removers, spray adhesives, and more. The chemical presents an “unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment” in 52 of 54 uses in industrial and consumer products, the EPA has found.
“People in the general population can be exposed to trichloroethylene by inhaling it in indoor and outdoor air, drinking contaminated water, or eating foods that have been washed or processed with contaminated water. Because this chemical was used extensively by the US military to degrease equipment, contaminated soil and groundwater can be found near many current and former military bases.
People who work with TCE may inhale the chemical from the air and absorb it through the skin.”
This isn’t the first time TCE’s use was restricted. Previously, it was used as a surgical anesthetic and inhaled analgesic. The Food and Drug Administration banned such use in the United States in 1977.
Prolonged or repeated exposure can lead to kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and, possibly, liver cancer.
In 2016, Congress passed the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, named for Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat who worked for years to fix the toxic-substance law before his death in 2013. The bill took over three years to finalize and received wide-range support from not just public advocacy groups, but also the chemical industry and the National Association of Manufacturers.
The bill set standards for the EPA to evaluate and set protections that hadn’t been updated since the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Since 1976, companies had fought regulation, arguing that chemical composition were proprietary and “secret”, limiting the regulatory reach. But the new bill requires the EPA to evaluate new and existing chemicals using a risk-based safety standard that included considerations for particularly vulnerable people such as children and pregnant women.
Since the new regulations were signed into law, many chemicals- including BPA, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, and asbestos have come under scrutiny with either bans being suggested by the EPA or stringent protections set into place.
In 2021, with the authority of the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, the EPA issued five final rules to reduce the exposure to chemicals that are “persistent, bioaccumlative, and toxic (PBT). The rules applied to the manufacture (including import), process, distribution in commerce, or use of phenol, isopropylated phosphate (3:1) (PIP (3:1)), or PIP (3:1)-containing articles.
The EPA shares that the recent proposed risk management rule of TCE would prohibit most uses of TCE within one year, including TCE manufacture and processing for most commercial and all consumer products. Within this one-year timeframe, most people who are likely be exposed to TCE would be protected, including workers in many sectors, all consumers, and many communities. For the majority of uses of TCE as a solvent, including consumer products, safer alternatives to TCE are readily available. For limited uses of TCE, such as critical Federal Agency uses, battery separators used to make electric vehicle batteries, and the manufacture of certain refrigerants that are being phased down nationally while industry transitions to more climate-friendly refrigerants, the proposal would provide a longer transition period while requiring stringent worker protections to reduce exposures in the near-term.
The EPA regularly amends and updates regulations and guidelines and partners with other agencies (like OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to protect human health. You can read more about current pursuits, protections, and environmental topics, here.
Next week, we’ll share alternatives to commonly used products that contain TCEs- from spot removal to degreasers.