Despite Delays and Threats, EPA Finally Classifies TCE as a Cancer-Causing Chemical

After more than 20 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally determined that trichloroethylene (TCE), a chlorinated solvent used primarily for removing grease from metal, causes cancer. The assessment was finalized by the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), an important but troubled program that is tasked with providing the public with critical information about dangerous chemical exposures.

During the George W. Bush administration, the program released only two assessments annually; under the Obama administration, the number climbed to nine annually, leaving the program with an accumulated backlog of at least 255 chemicals to assess. The delays keep dangerous chemicals in commercial use much longer than warranted, without warnings to the public about their health risks. The risks from many of these chemicals, which the public comes in contact with everyday, remain unknown.

The Findings

The EPA’s long-anticipated assessment, released on Sept. 28, formally classified TCE as a known human carcinogen. Specifically, the report found that exposure to TCE can lead to kidney and liver cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma; to a lesser extent, it may also be linked to bladder, esophageal, prostate, cervical, and breast cancers, as well as leukemia. TCE easily evaporates from water into the air and contaminates groundwater and land. According to the agency’s findings, any route of exposure can be carcinogenic to humans.

The greatest use of TCE has been as a degreaser for metal parts, including aircraft. The chemical is also found in household products, such as paint removers, glues, correction fluid, electronic equipment cleaners, rust removers, adhesives, and gun-cleaning fluids. Until 1977, TCE was even used as a general anesthetic, and until the 1980s, it was used in pharmaceuticals and food. Given the widespread usage, it is not surprising that TCE is one of the most common man-made chemicals found in the environment and is often found among the pollutants at Superfund sites, military bases, and industrial sites across the country.

Communities React to the TCE Assessment

EPA’s announcement came as a bittersweet victory for communities that have long suffered from TCE contamination, confirming long-held suspicions about the chemical. An estimated 750,000 people were exposed to TCE contamination at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune (a Marine Corps base) from the 1950s to the 1980s. Several expressed relief at the EPA’s final assessment. Mike Partain, who survived male breast cancer nearly four decades after his birth at Camp Lejeune, said, "This is confirmation of what we’ve known all along."

For Jerry Ensminger, who lost a daughter to childhood leukemia in 1985, "This was 20-plus years in the making. . . . It’s a crying shame that it takes that long for our regulatory agencies to finally getting around to protecting public health and the environment."

The TCE findings may assist in passage of the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act of 2011 (S. 277), which would provide hospital care, medical services, and nursing home care for veterans and family members who suffered effects from contamination. The bill was approved by the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs with bipartisan support in June 2011.

For parents of elementary school children in the North Bronx, New York City, the assessment is bone-chilling. The Bronx New School was closed in August after tests showed that the building was contaminated at levels far in excess of TCE limits, determined by state health department standards. The industrial plant that previously occupied the school building used TCE.

Victims of TCE exposure have leveled strong accusations at the federal government and industries for covering up TCE contamination of military bases and local communities. The victims from Camp Lejeune have created a website called The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten to inform everyone about the betrayal of trust that occurred at the base. TCE exposure victims from Beaverton, OR, established a nonprofit organization called Victims of TCE Exposure. A Lasting Legacy to assist other victims and fight the TCE contamination from a View-Master plant.

The Delay in Finalizing TCE Assessment

EPA’s long and arduous process to review TCE began in 1987, when the agency issued an initial assessment classifying the chemical as a "probable" human carcinogen. Almost 15 years later, in 2001, the agency issued a draft assessment, finding that the chemical was "highly likely" to cause cancer, identifying children as a vulnerable group.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the 2001 draft triggered a 10-year assault by the chemical industry, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy. Together, the three entities are responsible for about 750 TCE-contaminated sites throughout the country.

Though peer reviewed by independent scientific experts from the Science Advisory Board, the George W. Bush administration forced the EPA to put the 2001 draft assessment on hold. The Pentagon further delayed the report by requesting a review by the National Academies of Science (NAS) – a request that cost more than $1 million in taxpayer money. The Bush administration followed these delays with a 2007 rule that exempted the military and certain industries from having to limit air emissions of TCE. The Obama administration agreed to reconsider the exemption in 2009, but an outcome has yet to be reached.

The IRIS Program

Created in 1985, IRIS is a publicly searchable database containing scientific assessments of the human health effects of industrial chemicals and chemical substances. The assessments can form the basis of standards, safeguards, and agency actions, such as Superfund site clean-ups.

A key factor in EPA’s difficulty in finalizing the TCE assessment is the ongoing assault on the IRIS program. The Bush administration added several bureaucratic steps to the rulemaking process, which enabled the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and other federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense, to influence and delay the EPA's findings. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), in a 2008 report, admonished the Bush administration’s "restructuring" of IRIS, since the result was a dramatic slowing of chemical assessments.

Since 2009, the Obama administration has taken action to improve and reinvigorate the program. Based on the GAO’s 2008 recommendations, the EPA proposed measures to make it more difficult for other federal agencies to influence or delay the chemical review process. A June 2009 GAO report concluded that, if implemented effectively, these new reforms would "represent a significant improvement" by restoring EPA’s control and establishing transparency.

In June, the EPA announced further improvements to increase transparency and address criticisms in the program. The improvements, based on recommendations by the NAS, include providing more transparent, easy-to-understand, concise, and visual assessments. In addition, the methods, data, and decision criteria used to assess chemicals will be more transparent and will include a discussion of strengths and weaknesses behind the assessments' scientific rationale. The GAO expects to finalize an analysis of EPA’s proposed improvements for the program by the end of 2011.

The Future of the Chemical Risk Assessment Program

The EPA has several high-profile assessments still pending, including hexavalent chromium, formaldehyde, and styrene. The chemical industry and congressional Republicans seem intent on preventing the EPA from finalizing those assessments or at least in delaying the assessments for years. Billions of dollars and the health of millions of Americans are at stake.

Industry has attacked IRIS assessments as "overly stringent" and selective in their use of data. It wants EPA’s assessment of hexavalent chromium to be halted until new industry-sponsored studies can be completed. In addition, industry has sued the National Toxicology Program, which concluded, based on current studies, that styrene is "reasonably anticipated to cause cancer in humans."

In the most recent congressional assault on the IRIS program, Sens. James Inhofe (R-OK) and David Vitter (R-LA) sent letters to the EPA, calling for the agency to suspend all current chemical reviews "where serious concerns have been raised." The letters were sent on May 10 and Sept. 26, respectively, to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Paul Anastas, EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development. In their letter to Anastas, Inhofe and Vitter assert that they "do not think the agency should be proceeding with controversial IRIS assessments at this time." Additionally, in an Oct. 6 hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Republicans further attacked the assessments in a hearing entitled, "Chemical Risk Assessment: What Works for Jobs and the Economy?"

In the meantime, the final TCE assessment will enable the EPA (or states) to move forward with setting more health-protective TCE standards for drinking water, air emissions, and clean-up of contaminated soil. Public interest advocates have hailed the assessment, calling it a testament to Jackson’s determination to protect human health and push for expedited assessments of high-risk chemicals.

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