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Landmark Decision: EPA Proposes Comprehensive Ban on Cancer-Causing Contaminant TCE in All Applications


In a groundbreaking move, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has unveiled a bold proposal to prohibit all uses of trichloroethylene (TCE), a well-known carcinogenic chemical prevalent in various manufacturing processes and identified in countless water sources and properties globally. Dating back to the 1920s, TCE has been a pervasive environmental contaminant, serving as one of the most frequently utilized solvents across industries. As a colorless volatile organic compound, it has been a staple in cleaning agents and degreasers, particularly for metal applications, while also making its way into paints, sealants, coatings, and certain automotive products.

The chemical's widespread use has not been without consequences, as studies dating back to the 1960s have raised concerns about its adverse effects on human health. Despite a decline in popularity since then, TCE persists in some industrial applications, posing long-term risks to air quality and groundwater integrity, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Notably, veterans exposed to TCE at Camp Lejeune faced a 70% higher risk of developing Parkinson's disease, according to a recent study.

The proposed EPA rule, set to take effect within a year for consumer products and most commercial uses, outlines a phased reduction for limited remaining commercial and industrial applications. Rigorous worker protections accompany these extended usage periods. The EPA's decision follows its January revision to the Toxic Substances Control Act risk determination, classifying TCE as presenting an unreasonable risk to human health.

Apart from its established link to cancer, TCE exposure has been associated with liver damage, Parkinson's disease, nervous system complications, reproductive issues, and more. Drinking water remains a primary avenue of exposure for most individuals, with between 4.5% and 18% of tested US water supply sources annually showing TCE contamination, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Should the proposed rule be finalized in its current form, it would mark a sweeping ban on the majority of TCE applications in manufacturing and product processing. The EPA asserts the existence of safer alternatives to TCE, emphasizing a commitment to mitigating the health and environmental risks posed by this toxic compound.

In select instances, the proposed EPA regulations would usher in a phased reduction of trichloroethylene (TCE) from specific manufacturing processes. Notably, this includes the production of battery separators crucial for electric vehicles and the formulation of certain refrigerants. Moreover, the EPA acknowledges exceptions for laboratories involved in the cleanup of superfund sites and areas grappling with TCE contamination. Federal agencies deemed to have "critical" needs for TCE would also be permitted its use. Additionally, provisions for the proper disposal of TCE wastewater are outlined, extending over a 50-year timeframe.

EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe emphasized the significance of this move in the context of President Biden's Cancer Moonshot initiative and the broader commitment to safeguarding public health. McCabe stated, "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 underscores that this proposed ban is a crucial step toward preventing future land and water contamination, aligning with the imperative to provide the nation with comprehensive chemical safety protections, as articulated by Assistant Administrator Michal Freedoff.

Freedoff highlighted the historical significance of the EPA's action, particularly in mitigating the toxic legacy TCE has left in communities across the United States. Scott Faber, leading government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, hailed the announcement as a "historic departure from the past." While recognizing the existence of numerous chemicals warranting restrictions, Faber lauded today's development as a substantial stride forward, especially for workers and consumers.

The EPA's authority to take such decisive action is attributed in large part to reforms enacted in 2016, when Congress empowered the EPA to ban substances and chemicals, including asbestos. Prior to this, a 1991 court ruling had, in essence, constrained the EPA's ability to eliminate even well-known hazards like asbestos from the market. Today's announcement reflects a transformative shift toward more proactive and protective measures in chemical regulation.

In 2016, the landscape of chemical regulation underwent a transformative shift when President Barack Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act into law. This bipartisan legislation, a crucial update to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), significantly bolstered the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) authority in overseeing chemicals. The act mandated the EPA to conduct evaluations of existing chemicals and perform risk-based assessments, accompanied by aggressive deadlines to ensure swift action. Importantly, the legislation allocated funding to empower the agency in executing its new regulatory responsibilities.

However, the path forward faced challenges during the Trump administration when attempts were made to delay the implementation of this crucial law. These actions were subsequently deemed unlawful by the courts. Under the Biden administration, the EPA is now diligently adhering to the law, leveraging the powers granted by Congress to enhance chemical oversight. Scott Faber emphasized the profound impact of elections on regulatory outcomes, stating, "This couldn't have a clearer example of how elections have consequences for workers and consumers."

One community that has borne the brunt of chemical contamination, particularly trichloroethylene (TCE), is Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps base in North Carolina. A recent study revealed that between 1975 and 1985, during a period when the base's water was known to be contaminated with TCE and other volatile organic compounds, TCE levels exceeded permissible limits by 70-fold. Disturbingly, this contamination had severe consequences, with Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune during that time facing a 70% higher risk of Parkinson's disease compared to their counterparts serving elsewhere in the country. The aftermath has resulted in thousands of lawsuits filed against the US government by soldiers and their families grappling with the repercussions of extensive TCE exposure.

As the EPA announces its proposed rule to ban TCE in various applications, it invites public engagement by accepting comments for 45 days. Additionally, the agency plans to host a webinar to facilitate discussions on this crucial regulatory action.

In conclusion, the proposed EPA rule to ban trichloroethylene (TCE) represents a significant stride towards chemical safety and environmental protection, aligning with the mandates set forth by the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. The evolution of chemical regulation, particularly the empowering of the EPA in 2016, underscores the impact of legislative decisions on public health outcomes. The Biden administration's commitment to following the law and leveraging the EPA's enhanced powers reflects a dedicated effort to address longstanding challenges associated with TCE exposure.

The distressing legacy of TCE contamination at Camp Lejeune serves as a poignant reminder of the human cost tied to chemical hazards. The proposed rule, if finalized, offers hope for preventing future land and water contamination, particularly as it pertains to TCE. The acceptance of public comments over the next 45 days and the planned webinar underscore the EPA's commitment to transparency and public engagement in shaping regulatory decisions.

As the nation grapples with the consequences of chemical exposure, particularly for workers and communities, this proposed rule is emblematic of a forward-thinking approach to chemical regulation. It marks not only a departure from past practices but also a recognition of the critical role the EPA plays in safeguarding public health and the environment. The proposed ban on TCE usage signals a pivotal moment in advancing the broader goals of chemical safety, protecting families, workers, and communities from the potential harms associated with hazardous substances.