EPA moves one step closer to managing risks from TCE

Lindsay McCormick is a Research Analyst.

It’s no secret that trichloroethylene (TCE) is a nasty chemical.  A 2013 review of thousands of scientific studies by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists concluded that TCE is carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure and poses additional hazards, including immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, and adverse effects on the developing heart.  TCE’s link to cancer has been confirmed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS),  the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), and the National Toxicology Program (NTP).

With such a track record, one would expect that the U.S. government has restricted its use, right?  Wrong.  The current annual U.S. production of TCE is 250 million pounds – so, not surprisingly, human and environmental exposure is widespread.  While most TCE is used in industrial and commercial settings as a chemical intermediate in the production of other chemicals, it’s also commonly used as a metal degreasing agent and spot cleaner in commercial dry cleaning, and can be found in certain consumer products.

But over the past few years, EPA has taken steps towards managing the risks posed by TCE.  In 2014, EPA finalized a risk assessment on TCE – the first risk assessment the Agency had completed under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 28 years.  The assessment focused on just some uses of TCE, but found those uses pose significant risks: to occupational workers through use of aerosol and vapor degreasers and dry cleaning spotting agents, as well as to consumers through use of TCE-containing arts and craft spray fixative products.

The findings of EPA’s risk assessment spurred PLZ Aeroscience Corporation to work with EPA to reach an agreement to remove TCE from its consumer spray fixative products by September 2015. (Kudos to PLZ!)  In part because PLZ Aeroscience Corporation’s products were the only TCE-containing spray fixatives on the market, EPA has since been able to pursue a significant new use rule (SNUR) – one of the few regulatory tools that EPA has to seek to restrict the use of chemicals under TSCA – for certain uses of TCE in consumer products.

Last week, EPA finalized this SNUR, which is a significant step forward.  The rule locks in PLZ Aeroscience Corporation’s phase-out of TCE in consumer spray fixative products and ensures that similar new consumer products cannot enter the market without prior EPA review.

However, a SNUR cannot, by definition, address ongoing uses of a chemical – of which there are a good number for TCE.  EPA estimates that about 84% of TCE is used as a chemical intermediate in closed systems for manufacturing refrigerant chemicals, 15% as a solvent for metals decreasing, and the remaining ~1% for all other uses (including its use in consumer products).

With these ongoing uses in mind, EDF submitted comments on the proposed TCE SNUR in October, 2015, fully supporting the proposed SNUR but strongly urging EPA to promptly promulgate a TSCA section 6 rule to address ongoing uses of TCE.  The last time EPA attempted to utilize its authority under TSCA section 6 to ban or restrict chemicals was in 1989, when it issued its regulation to ban asbestos.  Two years later, that regulation was vacated by the courts because they found EPA had not met its high burden of proof of harm under TSCA.

Happily, EPA is trying again: EPA is working on a section 6 proposed rule for TCE (as well as for two other chemicals).  EPA intends to restrict TCE’s ongoing uses as a spotting agent in dry cleaning and in commercial and consumer aerosol spray degreasers.

Meanwhile, the European Union, which classified TCE as a Substance of Very High Concern under REACH in 2010, has since banned most uses (with a sunset date of April 21, 2016). Successfully promulgating a TSCA section 6 rule would be a huge feat for EPA, given the limits on its authority under TSCA, but EDF believes the targeted uses of TCE are strong candidates for TSCA section 6 regulation given their clear risks.

So, EPA deserves a hearty pat on the back for taking this initial step to restrict TCE’s use – but the journey has just begun.

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