EPA Proposes Ban on Toxic Chemical Found (TCE) in U.S. Drinking Water
Table of Contents
Have you ever had your clothes dry-cleaned? Perhaps you’ve used commercial stain removers on your carpets or even consumed unfiltered water. If you answered yes, you’ve likely encountered trichloroethylene, or TCE, as it’s more commonly called.
While ‘trichloroethylene’ might sound like a word from a foreign language, it’s actually a highly toxic chemical commonly used in stain removers, degreasers, stain removers, and scores of other consumer and industrial products. But despite links to various health problems, the EPA found that as much as 250 million pounds of TCE are still produced in the U.S. annually, much of which ends up in drinking water.
Now, the EPA is proposing a ban that will stop TCE at its source—a move that would end a years-long debate over whether to regulate the use of the chemical compound. Before we dig deeper into this proposed ban, let’s talk briefly about trichloroethylene: what it is, how it gets into drinking water, its health effects, and everything else you need to know.
What is Trichloroethylene (TCE)?
TCE, short for trichloroethylene, is a nonflammable, colorless liquid with a slightly sweet chloroform-like odor and a sweet, burning taste. It belongs to a group of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which, as you might know, can quickly change from a liquid state to a vapor (or gaseous) state. So, when you turn on a faucet or other water outlet, TCE can be released into the air, increasing the risk of exposure.
How Does TCE Get into Drinking Water?
The New York Times reports that TCE has been found in drinking water across the United States. But how did it get there?
Well, TCE can be found almost everywhere. Since the 1920s, it has been among the most commonly used solvents in various industries. Manufacturers have used it as a cleaning agent and degreaser, primarily for metal. The chemical can also be found in paints, sealants, coatings, and auto products like brake cleaners. Companies that make refrigerants also use TCE. However, the industrial processes used to make these products often release TCE into the environment, ultimately ending in the air and nearby water sources.
Most TCE in air comes from metal degreasing and other TCE-related processes used when manufacturing automobiles and various tools. However, many manufacturers dump waste directly into surface waters and landfills, causing TCE to leach into groundwater, rivers, reservoirs, and other drinking water sources. Unless your water provider removes the TCE from the water or you have a capable water treatment system, the chemical can quickly get into your drinking water supply and cause various health complications if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin.
What Makes TCE in Drinking Water So Toxic?
Don’t be misled by its sweet odor and taste; TCE can be incredibly toxic (depending on how much you’re exposed to and for how long). Usually, the higher the concentration and the longer the exposure, the greater the health risk.
If you’re curious about how this toxic chemical can affect your health, read on as we briefly discuss some common health effects.
- Increased cancer risk. TCE is a known human carcinogen, meaning it can increase your risk of cancer, particularly liver cancer, kidney cancer, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
- Damage to the central nervous system. This study found that TCE can affect the central nervous system, including the brain, causing headaches, nausea, dizziness, clumsiness, drowsiness, and other effects similar to being intoxicated. It can also harm the facial nerves.
- Heart effects: Exposure to TCE may lead to heart defects and immune disorders in a developing fetus if the mother is exposed in the first trimester of pregnancy.
- Liver damage. According to a toxicological summary for TCE, TCE exposure is associated with liver damage.
- Kidney damage. While low levels of TCE might not have immediate clinical effects on the kidneys, prolonged exposure can damage them, causing protein and sugar to leak from the blood into the urine.
- Parkinson’s disease: As this study reveals, exposure to TCE may trigger Parkinson’s disease. While about 90% of Parkinson’s cases can’t be explained by genetics, there have been hints that exposure to TCE may be linked to it.
- Autoimmune disease: Chronic TCE exposure in humans is associated with autoimmune diseases, including lupus, systemic sclerosis, and autoimmune hepatitis.
Other effects observed in people exposed to high levels of TCE include sudden death due to changes in heart rhythm and skin problems in individuals who come into contact with concentrated TCE solutions.
As if these health problems weren’t already frightening, the EPA recently reevaluated TCE and found it to be more potent than previously believed, with more substantial evidence of cancer and birth defects in humans. However, short-term exposure may still pose a risk to reproduction.
How Does the EPA Plan to Combat TCE in Drinking Water?
The EPA is taking steps to reduce widespread exposure to TCE after determining the chemical poses an unreasonable risk to human health. The proposal, issued under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), would restrict most uses of TCE, including those in processing commercial and consumer products. However, the EPA says it would gradually phase out “limited” uses over a longer timeframe or temporarily allow time-limited “critical use” exemptions.
The EPA says safer alternatives are available to TCE and believes the proposed ban will prevent TCE from contaminating land and drinking water.
How Long Before the Ban Takes Effect?
The proposed ban is expected to take effect within one year for consumer products and most commercial uses. However, the EPA would phase out the remaining “limited” commercial and industrial uses of TCE over a longer period, with strict worker protections.
It’s also worth noting that Minnesota is the first state in the U.S. to ban TCE, which went into full effect on June 1, 2023. Before that, state authorities discovered more than 130 companies and other facilities across the state using TCE. Once the ban took effect, the state has almost completely phased out the use of TCE. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency allows only three research and development facilities to use it.
Why Has the EPA Taken So Long to Ban TCE, Given the Threat to Human Health?
Scientists have suspected since the 1960s that exposure to TCE could hurt human health. The EPA was also aware of this, so why did TCE remain unregulated for many decades?
CNN reports that the EPA had limited regulatory power over chemicals, including TCE, until the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. The new law gave the EPA more authority to regulate chemicals, but evaluating and regulating each chemical took time.
Furthermore, the chemical industry has lobbied against TCE regulation for years, arguing that it is necessary for specific applications and that there are no viable alternatives. The chemical industry has also challenged the EPA’s scientific findings on TCE’s health effects, describing them as “erroneous.”
What Has the Response to The EPA’s Proposed TCE Restriction Been Like?
The EPA’s proposed ban on TCE has received mixed responses from various stakeholders. Environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund and Earthjustice, welcome the proposal. Scott Faber, who leads the government affairs efforts for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that has worked for years to get the government to put more restrictions on chemicals, said the announcement is a “historic departure from the past.”
However, The American Chemistry Council (ACC) has expressed concerns about the proposed ban, stating that TCE has several essential uses in packaging, formulation, and as a solvent, where small amounts are used. The ACC is also concerned that the proposed rule is inconsistent with the underlying science.
Is There a Safe Level of TCE in Drinking Water?
The EPA’s maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) for TCE in drinking water is zero. So, ideally, there should be no TCE in drinking water due to its potential health risks. But in 1987, the agency set a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for TCE at 0.005 milligrams per liter (0.005 mg/L) or 5 parts per billion (ppb).
However, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) believes this standard is outdated and doesn’t fully protect against cancer and other health effects, especially in developing fetuses. As such, the EWG has established a health guideline of 0.4 ppb for TCE in drinking water—more than ten times lower than the EPA’s 5 ppb limit.
States may also have different guidelines for TCE in drinking water. For instance, Florida’s drinking water standard for TCE is 3 ppb, while most others stick to EPA guidelines.
- MCLG (Maximum Contaminant Level Goal): The lowest level of a particular contaminant allowed in drinking water for which there is no known or expected risk to your health. Essentially, the MCLF is a safety boundary for each pollutant detected.
- MCL (Maximum Contaminant Level): The highest contaminant level the EPA allows in your drinking water.
How Do I Know If My Drinking Water Contains TCE?
The only way to determine if TCE in your tap water is to collect a water sample from your home and send it to a certified laboratory for testing. This water testing kit makes this process a breeze. It tests for TCE and can detect other industrial chemicals, cancer-causing compounds, bacteria, heavy metals, minerals, anions, radioactive elements, and various water attributes.
If your water comes from a private well, you should test the water for VOCs at least twice a year. This is the only reliable way to know if your VOC levels are too high. VOCs in water don’t always have a distinct smell, taste, or color, so you could unknowingly ingest high levels of TCE and other VOCs if you do not test your water.
Not only that, you may also be exposed to TCE by breathing the air inside your home. Even if you don’t drink the water, TCE can be released into the indoor air from water-using appliances (such as dishwashers and washing machines) and your shower. You may also absorb it through your skin while bathing or showering.
My Drinking Water Contains TCE. How Do I Remove It?
There’s no better defense against TCE and other VOCs in drinking water than activated carbon water filters. As the water flows through the filter, it attracts and grabs hold of the TCE molecules within the pores of its large surface area. Only the water molecules are allowed through.
Activated carbon filters come in all shapes and sizes. You can install carbon filters under the sink, on your countertop, or as a whole house water filter. A whole-house system is the best option to reduce TCE exposures from showering/bathing, cooking, dishwashing, or other uses. Proper ventilation may also reduce the amount of TCE in the air that may evaporate from household water.
After decades of delay, the EPA has finally proposed a ban on Trichloroethylene (TCE), a toxic chemical solvent used in many consumer products and industrial processes. Studies have linked TCE to various health complications, including cancer, sudden deaths, heart problems, liver and kidney damage, and Parkinson’s disease, to name a few. Under the new proposal, the EPA plans to ban most uses of TCE within a year.
The EPA predicts that banning TCE will reduce the amount in the environment and, ultimately, drinking water. But as we keep an eye on the progress of this proposed ban, we urge you to make every effort to safeguard your drinking water from TCE contamination. An excellent place to start is testing your water to determine if it’s contaminated with TCE. If so, consider installing a whole house activated carbon filter to remove TCE and scores of other toxic chemicals and pollutants from your water supply.