EPA releases final risk assessment for TCE: One down, 84,999 to go*

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Lead Senior Scientist.  Jennifer McPartland, Ph.D., is a Health Scientist.

EPA achieved a rather significant milestone today in releasing a final risk assessment for the solvent trichloroethylene (TCE).  This document is for the first of a group of 83 “work plan chemicals” EPA identified in 2012 as needing risk assessments and, where warranted, risk management.

Why do we call it a milestone?  It is the first final risk assessment issued by EPA using its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in – wait for it – 28 years.

The last time EPA issued a final risk assessment for a chemical under TSCA was in 1986, for asbestos.  (EPA has developed a few draft assessments under TSCA over the years, but today marks the first time since 1986 that one of them has been finalized.)

So, kudos to EPA for finally getting this risk assessment to the finish line.  Now what’s next? 

The 200+ page risk assessment examined only a subset of uses of TCE, those thought most significant by EPA.  Among its key findings are that certain uses of TCE – for degreasing and spot cleaning and in spray coating used arts & crafts – pose unacceptably high risks to workers and consumers.  These risks entail both cancer and non-cancer health impacts, and both acute and chronic effects.

These clear findings of unacceptably high risks mean that EPA must promptly initiate actions under TSCA to address those risks.  Section 6 of TSCA provides EPA with broad potential authority to restrict the use of chemicals if it can meet its burden of demonstrating the risks are “unreasonable.”  That has proven to be no easy task.  The infamous 1991 Corrosion Proof Fittings decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated nearly the entirety of EPA’s TSCA regulation to ban most uses of asbestos, with the court arguing EPA had not met its burden.  Since then, EPA has never again tried to use that Section 6 authority.

The findings of today’s risk assessment of TCE make clear that it is high time EPA takes another run at using that authority.  EDF urges the agency to promptly initiate a rulemaking under TSCA to restrict the identified uses of TCE.

The fact that today’s announcement is such a milestone also amply demonstrates the critical need for reform of TSCA – as EPA prominently noted in its press release today.  The absence of any mandate or deadline under the current law for EPA to identify, assess and manage high-risk chemicals has stymied the Agency’s efforts for decades. 

Another equally large obstacle that demands reform of TSCA is EPA’s highly constrained authority to require testing and collect the information needed to support risk assessment.  TCE is a relatively data-rich chemical, which facilitated EPA’s ability to develop and finalize its risk assessment; for many or most of the tens of thousands of other chemical in commerce today, however, EPA simply must be provided the authority it needs to obtain data on uses, hazards and exposures to be able to identify, prioritize, assess and manage chemical risks.


* The 85,000 referred to in the title of this post is the number of chemicals on the TSCA Inventory; we recognize that far fewer chemicals, though still numbering in the tens of thousands, are likely in commerce in the U.S. at the present time.



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