EPA Proposes Restrictions on TCE, Toxic Solvent, Under TSCA

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is steadily chugging toward the finish line with its proposed ban of the highly toxic solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE. This is great news! The proposal will force a mandatory ban on two dangerous and unnecessary uses of TCE—as a solvent in aerosol degreasers and in dry cleaning spot removal products.

In fact, many companies have already replaced TCE with less toxic or non-toxic alternatives. EPA isn’t leading the pack on protecting workers and consumers, but it is doing something very important by proposing to put a full and enforceable no-nonsense stop to the last remaining holdover companies and manufacturers that won’t move voluntarily to safer products.  

How bad is TCE?

EPA’s rule, when finalized and enforced, will save lives. How bad is TCE? EPA says it best in the proposed rule: “…. these uses result in significant non-cancer risks (acute and chronic exposure scenarios) and cancer risks. These adverse health effects include developmental toxicity (e.g., cardiac malformations, developmental immunotoxicity, developmental neurotoxicity, fetal death), toxicity to the kidney (kidney damage and kidney cancer), immunotoxicity (such as systemic autoimmune diseases, e.g., scleroderma, and severe hypersensitivity skin disorder), non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, reproductive and endocrine effects (e.g., decreased libido and potency), neurotoxicity (e.g., trigeminal neuralgia), and toxicity to the liver (impaired functioning and liver cancer). TCE may cause fetal cardiac malformations that begin in utero. In addition, fetal death, possibly resulting from cardiac malformation, can be caused by exposure to TCE. Cardiac malformations can be irreversible and impact a person’s health for a lifetime.” (Trichloroethylene (TCE); Regulation of Certain Uses under TSCA Section 6(a) (RIN 2070-AK03) Proposed Rule, December 6, 2016. Page 11-12. Docket No. EPA-HQ-OPPT-2016-0163)

Because of such terrible health risks, several years ago the California Air Resources Board banned dry cleaning uses of TCE-containing spot removers in California (effective at the end of 2012). Safer substitutes to TCE-based spot removers are already available, and include water-based cleaners, soy-based cleaners and acetone-based cleaners. A cost analysis prepared for Cal EPA indicates that the alternatives are less costly than the TCE spotting agents.

Industry opposition

No one could reasonably oppose a rule that would ban unsafe exposures to a chemical this bad, right? Unfortunately, reason often plays second fiddle to profits. Although there is big money to be made in the safer replacement products, nonetheless the TCE manufacturers continue a decades-long battle to defeat any restrictions on TCE. The Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, Inc. (HSIA)—a trade group representing manufacturers of solvents, including TCE, continues to defend TCE against regulatory actions. And, TCE has friends in Congress as well. Soon-to-be former Senator David Vitter (R-La.), , along with Senators Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) are all on record challenging EPA’s TCE assessment (for example, see Chemical Watch July 2014 and Senator’s letter June 2014). 

Next steps

The proposed regulation of TCE [and two other proposals that are currently under review by the White House: one for TCE uses as a vapor degreaser; and, one combined rule for methylene chloride (MC) and n-methylpyrrolidone (NMP) for painting and coating removal] provides an early test of the strength and effectiveness of the recently-revised Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), as well as the incoming Trump Administration’s intentions to protect the public from dangerous toxic chemicals.  Whether the proposal is ultimately finalized, or is weakened or shelved will tell us a lot about what we can expect over the next four years as far as chemicals policy from the next Administration. 

Assuming that EPA finalizes the proposal, whether it survives the inevitable legal challenge from the chemical industry, or gets overturned as happened with asbestos in 1991 (EPA’s last attempt to regulate a known human carcinogen under TSCA Section 6) these rules will be the first indicators of how successful the revised TSCA may ultimately be in protecting public health and the environment. 

In the meantime, in addition to moving forward on the proposed restrictions on TCE, MC, and NMP, EPA must now also proceed with its risk evaluation of 10 substances, including additional uses of TCE that are outside the scope of the proposed rule announced today and the rule still under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The process for evaluating and potentially regulating some or all uses of those substances is where much of the fate of the revised TSCA is likely to be determined. 

Ideally, this proposal to ban specific uses of TCE will be finalized and will successfully set a winning precedent for the EPA efforts to follow. But this proposal and the other steps that are coming, are likely to face strong challenges from the chemical manufactures and their allies. 

We hope the White House will quickly complete its review of EPA’s proposed regulation of TCE in vapor degreasing, as well as EPA’s proposed regulation of specific uses of methylene chloride and NMP. All of these proposed rules address high risk uses of highly toxic chemicals. Actually crossing the finish line will protect the health of many Americans.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Health program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.