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Chemical Regulation

Trichloroethylene poses risks to workers and consumers, EPA says

Draft assessment confirms previous concerns about health effects of chlorinated solvent

by Britt E. Erickson
February 24, 2020

Ball and stick structure of trichloroethylene.
Credit: US EPA

Many uses of trichloroethylene (TCE) pose unreasonable health risks to workers and consumers, the US Environmental Protection Agency says in its latest evaluation of the chlorinated solvent. The draft assessment, released on Feb. 21, confirms health risks associated with dermal and inhalation exposure to TCE that the agency first identified in 2014.

TCE is one of the first 10 chemicals that the EPA is evaluating for health risks under the 2016 revisions to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The agency plans to finalize all 10 assessments by June.

In 2016, the EPA proposed to ban the use of TCE in aerosol degreasers and dry cleaning stain removers. The Trump administration, however, put that ban on hold in late 2017. Instead of finalizing the ban, the EPA chose to reevaluate TCE under the amended TSCA.

In its draft assessment, the EPA finds that all but 1 of 54 uses of TCE considered by the agency have the potential to affect the health of workers and consumers. The agency did not find an unreasonable risk with consumer use of pepper spray, although it considered the risks only to users and bystanders, not to people sprayed directly.

TCE is a known human carcinogen. It is also associated with neurological, developmental, and immunological toxicity. In 2015, concerns about the health risks of TCE led PLZ Aeroscience to stop manufacturing consumer arts and crafts spray fixatives, typically used to protect and preserve artwork, that contain the solvent. No other companies sell such products in the US.

As the EPA has done for several other chemical risk evaluations conducted during the past year, it did not consider risks of TCE to the general population. The agency claims that the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, or other statutes sufficiently address such risks.

Environmental groups argue that EPA’s failure to consider risks to the general population underestimates risks to public health. “This means ignoring nearly 3 million pounds [1.4 million kg] of TCE released annually to air, water, and land,” Jennifer McPartland, senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, says in a statement.

The EPA’s draft TCE assessment also ignores the most sensitive health effect—fetal heart defects. In its 2014 assessment, the agency used a developmental toxicity study on fetal cardiac abnormalities in rodents (Environ. Health Perspect. 2003, DOI: 10.1289/ehp.5125) to calculate TCE health risks in people. Several Republican senators and the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, which represents TCE manufacturers, pushed back, calling the 2003 study “fundamentally flawed.”

The decision to exclude fetal heart defects “not only underestimates the lifelong risks of the chemical, especially to the developing fetus,” McPartland says, but “it also presents yet another example of this administration bowing to polluters’ interests over public health protection.”

The EPA’s chemicals advisory committee plans to review the TCE draft assessment during a March 24–26 meeting. The EPA will accept public comments on the draft for 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register.


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