A chemical used in some aerosol sprays, degreasers and stain removers poses a serious health threat to workers and consumers, federal environmental officials say.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week identified trichloroethylene as a harmful substance under the Toxic Substances Control Act. It’s the first time the agency has issued such an assessment since 1986, when it found that asbestos is especially hazardous to human health.
For consumers, health risks from TCE exposures are highest when using spray aerosol degreasers and spray fixatives, including products used for cleaning carpets or for arts and crafts projects, the EPA said in a 200-page report. In the workplace, TCE is commonly used as a degreaser in small commercial spaces, like car repair garages and shoemaking shops, and as a stain-removing agent in dry cleaning.
The chemical can cause cancer and a host of other non-cancerous effects, including damage to the central nervous and immune systems, the kidneys and liver, and the male reproductive system. It can also cause abnormalities in developing fetuses, according to an EPA health assessment. TCE is used in other applications, but the EPA only called out the uses it thought were most significant in health impact.
The EPA’s final risk assessment on TCE was developed as part of the toxic substance law’s work plan, which lists 85,000 other chemicals in need of review based on their potential threats to health and the environment.
The fact that TCE is the only one of those chemicals to get a final assessment in nearly three decades “amply demonstrates the critical need for reform” of the government’s chemical safety policies, scientists Richard Denison and Jennifer McPartland wrote in a blog post for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group. The toxic substance law currently lacks any mandate or deadline for the EPA to identify, assess or manage the high-risk chemicals in its inventory, which “has stymied the agency’s efforts for decades.”
U.S. lawmakers last year introduced the Safe Chemicals Act to overhaul current federal toxics laws and make it easier for the EPA to review the safety of all chemicals on the market today. In its TCE update, the EPA called on Congress to pass such legislation.
“Until that time, we are using the best available science to assess and address chemical risks of TCE that now show that it may harm human health and the environment,” Jim Jones, assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention, said in a statement.
The EPA said it will conduct a workshop in late July to discuss TCE alternatives and ways to reduce health risks. In the meantime, the agency recommended that people take steps to reduce their exposure, including using products outside or in extremely well-ventilated areas or wearing protective equipment.
TCE isn’t limited to household and industrial products, however. The chemical is a common contaminant at landfills, where it can leach into drinking water supplies as well as contaminate the air indoors, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention. TCE gained attention in early 2013 after Google Inc. employees were exposed to the substance at the company's satellite campus, which sits atop a toxic Superfund site in Mountain View, California, Environmental Leader noted.