It’s Time to Ban This Solvent Linked to Cancer

The Biden administration may soon be finalizing a ban on trichloroethylene. Here’s what it is and who is at risk of exposure.

A warning sign posted near a pond contaminated with trichloroethylene and other hazardous chemicals at the former Reese Air Force Base near Lubbock, Texas.
A warning sign posted near a pond contaminated with trichloroethylene and other hazardous chemicals at the former Reese Air Force Base near Lubbock, Texas. (Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

Vapors rising from the ground is something you’d expect in a low-budget horror film, not a new house.

Yet in industrial neighborhoods in New Jersey, Arizona, North Carolina, and other states, residents are facing real-life horrors in the form of poisonous vapors pushing up from under their floors. The villain isn’t supernatural: it’s the chemical industry.

Earthjustice is fighting to stop toxic chemicals from harming people whose communities have been sacrificed in the name of industrial progress. And a deadly chemical called trichloroethylene widely detected in drinking water is high on the list.

Trichloroethylene, or TCE, is a chemical that companies use as a solvent in metal degreasers and stain removers.

Companies use TCE in a range of industrial processes, primarily as a degreaser. It’s found in factories that produce metal goods, like cigarette lighters, on military bases, and in airports.

TCE is carcinogenic at all routes of exposure. It can increase the risk of leukemia, breast cancer, and congenital heart defects in developing fetuses. Residents who drank TCE-contaminated water near military sites experienced increased incidences of leukemia as well as liver, kidney, and immune system issues.

How are people exposed to TCE?

TCE exposure happens most often through the contamination of groundwater, which has been linked to cancer clusters in communities across the country.

In the industrial neighborhood of Ironbound, New Jersey, factories that produced metal goods like cigarette lighters dumped TCE-laced wastewater into the ground. The polluted groundwater traveled into the soil beneath people’s homes, where the TCE became airborne and rose through residents’ floors in a process called vapor intrusion.

TCE has also been found in drinking water near military bases in North Carolina, California, and other states. In North Carolina, an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 soldiers, military families, and nearby residents were exposed to TCE-contaminated drinking water, resulting in increased risks of cancers like leukemia and breast cancer, and health issues like infertility, lupus, and Parkinson’s disease.

What is the government doing?

In 2017, the Obama administration proposed a ban on several degreasing uses of TCE, but the Trump administration never finalized that proposed rule and subsequently withdrew it.

We sued the EPA over the chemical’s continued use, and in response to our lawsuit, the Biden administration announced a new proposal that would phase out all existing uses of TCE.

The EPA is using its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, which is the government’s strongest tool for protecting the public from deadly chemicals. If finalized, the ban on TCE would set an important precedent for how TSCA can be used to fully ban toxic chemicals, defying polluting industries and saving millions of lives.

Alison Cagle is a writer at Earthjustice. She is based in San Francisco. Alison tells the stories of the earth: the systems that govern it, the ripple effects of those systems, and the people who are fighting to change them — to protect our planet and all its inhabitants.

Earthjustice’s Toxic Exposure & Health Program uses the power of the law to ensure that all people have safe workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools; have access to safe drinking water and food; and live in homes that are free of hazardous chemicals.