EPA’s ban on high-risk uses of trichloroethylene needs to get over the finish line

Jennifer McPartland, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist with the Health Program.

Trichloroethylene, or TCE for short, is a very toxic chemical. No doubt about it. Among other health effects, TCE is known to cause cancer and interfere with development.  It is also toxic to the immune system and kidneys. While the vast majority of TCE in the U.S. is used to make other chemicals (i.e., is used as a chemical intermediate), approximately 15% of TCE has other commercial and consumer purposes, including as a metal degreaser and spot cleaning agent.

Over the past several years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a hard look at exposures and potential health risks—including to workers, consumers, and bystanders—resulting from certain commercial and consumer uses of TCE. It found clearly excessive risks from these uses, which prompted the agency to take steps to reduce these exposures.

In December 2016, using its authority under section 6 of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), EPA proposed a rule to ban the use of TCE as an aerosol degreaser and as a spot cleaning agent in commercial dry cleaning facilities—marking the first time in nearly 3 decades it has tried to restrict a chemical under TSCA. A second proposed rule to ban the use of TCE as a vapor degreaser followed a month later in January 2017 and is undergoing public comment.

The public comment period on the first TCE proposed rule closed recently. EDF filed extensive comments urging the agency to finalize the rule as soon as possible.

Highlights of our comments are below:  

  • EPA’s risk assessment of TCE’s use as an aerosol degreaser and as a spot cleaning agent in dry cleaning facilities is scientifically rigorous and meets TSCA’s requirements to use the best available science and apply a weight-of-the-scientific-evidence approach. EPA’s TCE assessment and associated methodologies have undergone extensive public comment and peer review.
  • This assessment has clearly identified multiple types of risks that are unreasonable, including to specific subpopulations such as workers and pregnant women.
  • EPA has shown that a ban of these uses under TSCA is necessary to address the risks, as actions taken and authorities available under other statutes are not sufficient.
  • EPA has also shown that options short of a ban on these uses, such as imposing concentration limits or relying on personal protective equipment (PPE), are not sufficient to address the unreasonable risks.

While EPA has more than established that these uses of TCE present unreasonable risks, as it proceeds with future risk evaluations, EDF strongly encourages the agency to move toward a unified approach to assessing cancer and non-cancer risks as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences.

EDF urges EPA to move expeditiously to finalize the rule to meet the applicable deadline of finalizing it by December, a year after its proposal.

The amendments made to TSCA last year clearly authorized EPA to move forward with its assessment of these uses of TCE and to impose restrictions needed to address unreasonable risks it identified.  This express authorization under the law flies in the face of what some have proposed, that EPA abandon its rule, postpone taking any action on these uses, and instead fold them into a separate risk evaluation EPA has just started to look at other uses of TCE.  Taking that approach would delay any action on these high-risk uses for many years.

The fate of EPA’s proposed ban on these uses of TCE will be an important test on whether the agency can finally act effectively to protect the public from harmful exposures using its new authorities under the recently amended TSCA.

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