TCE is slick! Though he was fired from food and pharmaceutical uses in the 70s, he managed to keep the role of his life since the 20s as a degreaser of metal parts. TCE has enjoyed a love affair with the aerospace and military industries that has made him one their worst pollutants. He gets rocket engines and military equipment squeaky clean and in doing so he contaminates the soil, evaporates to the air and spills over into the water of surrounding communities, poisoning drinking water and helping to create hazardous Superfund sites. He is a generous lover, impacting military bases in dozens of states.
Don’t be fooled by his wimpy appearance, he is a serious actor. In small doses TCE can impair immune system function, damage liver and kidney, impairs fetal development and causes dizziness, lung irritation, headaches and poor coordination. In larger amounts it may cause impaired heart function, unconsciousness and death. Half a million workers are routinely exposed to TCE as he continues his romance with the rocket.
- Learn more at the UCLA Center for Sustainable Technology
- Also see the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR): ToxFAQ Trichloroethylene
- Recent headlines at Environmental Health News
TCE was banned in the food and pharmaceutical industries in much of the world since the 1970s. He has been used to remove carbonization from rocket engines after firing, resulting in massive TCE contamination at military and aerospace sites. A true legacy indeed!
Until 1964, up to 800,000 gallons of TCE seeped into the ground and groundwater of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, the headwaters of the Los Angeles River. The current groundwater remediation system, disabled by lab owner Boeing, would take 80,000 years to clean up the TCE alone if it were even turned on. Boeing says TCE-laced water should be left alone as no one will ever drink it.
TCE contamination has impacted many military bases including Camp Pendleton and Edwards Air Force Base. The TCE contamination of groundwater and resultant health impacts at Camp Lejeune were featured in the acclaimed 2011 documentary Semper Fi: Always Faithful. TCE is also an ingredient in many types of pepper spray, sometimes up to 98% by weight.
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In September 2011, the EPA’s final risk assessment found that TCE causes kidney and liver cancer, lymphoma and other health problems. This lays the groundwork to reevaluate the federal drinking-water standard for the contaminant.
Like any master of his craft, TCE can play many roles! Drinking small amounts of TCE for long periods may cause impaired immune system function, liver and kidney damage and impair fetal development in pregnant women. Larger drinking doses may cause liver damage, nausea, impaired heart function, unconsciousness or death. Breathing small amounts may cause dizziness, lung irritation, headaches, difficulty concentrating and poor coordination. Inhaling large amounts of TCE may cause unconsciousness, impaired heart function and death.
TCE is designated as a Hazardous Air Pollutant, is a common groundwater contaminant, and has been found at more than 1,500 hazardous waste sites. TCE enters the atmosphere from vapor degreasing operations or volatilization from contaminated soils, surface waters via direct discharges, and groundwater through leaching from disposal operations and hazardous waste sites. In addition, TCE can be released to indoor air from the use of TCE-containing consumer products, volatilization from water supplies, and vapor intrusion through walls and floors from contaminated soil and groundwater.
This creepy chemical can also get into the air or water in many ways, for example, at waste treatment facilities; by evaporation from paints, glues, and other products; or by release from factories where it is made. Humans exposed by breathing the air around factories that use the chemical. People living near hazardous waste sites may be exposed to it in the air or in their drinking water, or in the water used for bathing or cooking.
TCE exposure is associated with several adverse health effects, including neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity, developmental toxicity, liver toxicity, kidney toxicity, endocrine effects, and several forms of cancer. Under EPA’s proposed cancer guidelines, TCE can be characterized as highly likely to produce cancer in humans.