EPA Proposes a Ban on TCE

If finalized, the EPA's new rule would prohibit all uses of the toxic chemical in commercial manufacturing and consumer products.

On October 23, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal to ban the use of trichloroethylene (TCE). TCE is a toxic chemical linked to adverse health outcomes, including cancer. It's used in manufacturing and found in certain consumer products. Testing has also identified the chemical in drinking water.

As part of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the proposed ban would prohibit TCE manufacturing, processing, and distribution. If finalized, the rule would take effect in one year for consumer products and most commercial applications.

However, some commercial and industrial uses of the chemical will phase out over a longer timeframe. During this phasedown period, the EPA's rule would require companies to implement strict worker protections.

"For far too long, TCE has left a toxic legacy in communities across America. [The] EPA is taking a major step to protect people from exposure to this cancer-causing chemical," said Michal Freedhoff, the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. "[The] proposal to end these unsafe, unrestricted uses of TCE will prevent future contamination to land and drinking water and deliver the chemical safety protections this nation deserves."

What is TCE and what are the health effects?

TCE is a solvent found mostly in metal degreasers, brake cleaners, and everyday products like furniture protection and household cleaners. Companies also use the chemical when manufacturing specific refrigerants, electric car batteries, and defense systems.

An EPA toxicology review found that exposure to TCE can cause certain types of cancer and could damage the central nervous system, kidney, liver, immune system, and respiratory tract. It also harms reproduction and fetal development.

In addition, people are at risk for these conditions even if exposed to a small amount of the chemical.

Most exposure to TCE occurs through drinking contaminated water. According to the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 4.5% to 18% of drinking water sources tested yearly in the United States contain TCE, typically at levels less than 30 parts per billion (ppb).

In an Environmental Working Group press release, Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., vice president of Science Investigations at EWG, said, "People whose water contains TCE can be exposed not just by drinking it but also by inhaling it while bathing, washing dishes and doing other household activities. Communities across the country have water with potentially harmful levels of this toxic solvent, but many people don't know about the risk they face when they turn on the tap."

However, Naidenko also says people can use inexpensive carbon filters to remove TCE from tap water.

"For households that use private wells, we recommend testing the water for TCE and other contaminants to find out whether water treatment is necessary," Naidenko said.

The EPA will accept public comments on the proposed TCE ban for 45 days following publication in the Federal Register, accessible via docket EPA-HQ-OPPT-2020-0642 at www.regulations.gov. The agency will also host a public webinar to present an overview of the proposed action for employers and employees. However, the webinar's date and time has yet to be determined.

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