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Minnesota bans toxic chemical TCE; EPA twiddles thumbs

In brief:

  • Trichloroethylene (TCE) is a dangerous chemical. This volatile organic compound is classified as a human carcinogen and is linked to fetal heart defects.
  • TCE is used in manufacturing processes as well as common household products such as cleaners, spot removers, degreasers, fabric spray, and shoe polish.
  • Minnesota is now the first state to ban the use of toxic TCE in any facility required to have a state-issued air permit.
  • EPA fails to protect the public against toxic TCE, despite years of research showing its harmful impacts on human health.
  • Trump EPA official Nancy Beck fought regulation of toxic TCE for most of her career, and yet, President Trump has nominated her to chair an important consumer watchdog agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Minnesota recently became the first state to ban the dangerous chemical trichloroethylene (TCE). Not familiar with TCE? It’s a volatile organic compound that’s used in manufacturing processes and consumer products. Minnesota’s new law passed both chambers of its legislature by overwhelming majorities. The new law bans the use of TCE in any facility required to have a state-issued air permit, including in any manufacturing, processing, or cleaning processes. We applaud Minnesota’s leadership!

Meanwhile, despite years of U.S. EPA research that has revealed this chemical’s hazards to human health, we’re still waiting for the agency to protect the public from it.

What is TCE? Where is it? Why is it a problem?

TCE is everywhere – it’s in our air and water and in contaminated waste sites. It’s used in industrial facilities and in household products. TCE is a volatile organic compound mostly used to manufacture refrigerant chemicals. But it is also used as a solvent for degreasing, as a spot cleaner in dry cleaning, and in several common household items, such as carpet cleaners, spot removers, shoe polish, degreasers, cleaners, adhesives, sealants, and fabric spray.

EPA classifies TCE as a human carcinogen through all routes of exposure. It is also harmful to male reproduction, causes neurological damage, and is a liver and kidney toxin. This substance is dangerous.

In a 2014 risk assessment, EPA said that the most vulnerable groups exposed to TCE are pregnant women using TCE-containing household sprays and workers (including pregnant women) using TCE-containing vapor degreasers.

EPA has failed to protect fetuses, workers, veterans and the rest of us from TCE

While EPA has long known of TCE’s serious risks, it has repeatedly failed to take action.

Hundreds of Superfund toxic waste sites have TCE contamination. This pollution can spread into groundwater and threaten drinking water supplies. Many of these sites are at or near military bases, including the storied Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Veterans and their families who served and lived there developed cancers and neurological ailments, such as Parkinson’s disease, later in life from drinking water that was contaminated with TCE and other toxic chemicals.

You may have heard about TCE recently in an excellent piece of reporting from Elizabeth Shogren at Reveal, “EPA scientists found a toxic chemical damages fetal hearts. The Trump White House rewrote their assessment.” It told the story of babies born with congenital heart defects to families who lived in areas contaminated with TCE, including on or near the Camp Lejeune base.

Trump administration shelved Obama-era proposals to ban TCE

Shogren’s piece also told how the White House directed EPA career scientists to downplay TCE’s harm to pregnant women and developing fetuses, including fetal heart malformations. They were directed to do this in evaluating the risks posed by TCE under the reformed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This is likely to mean that the Agency’s actions won’t meet the TSCA requirement to protect “potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulations,” leaving more of us in danger.

After reading the draft risk evaluation, we organized a letter from 30 local, state, and national groups calling on EPA to take immediate action to address the imminent and serious acute risks of both fetal heart defects and other serious health effects presented by TCE.

Among other recommendations, we called on EPA to immediately finalize bans on major uses of TCE. The Obama EPA proposed these bans in 2016 and then the Trump EPA abandoned them in 2017.

On March 31, Assistant Administrator Alex Dunn sent a response to our letter that declined to take any of the actions to protect public health that we outlined.

Trump consumer-protection nominee has scuttled TCE regulations

Nancy Beck, who is currently nominated to chair the Consumer Product Safety Commission, has played a major role in scuttling proposed regulation of TCE. From Shogren’s Reveal piece:

“According to two government scientists, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, EPA scientists were directed to substantially rewrite their evaluation by discarding the science on TCE’s role in fetal heart defects. The instructions, they said, came from the Executive Office of the President. That’s where Nancy Beck, chief of the EPA’s chemicals office and a longtime senior lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, was detailed in June.”

Shogren’s reporting reveals that Beck has a long history of pushing back against regulation of TCE:

“In 2002, as an early-career toxicologist, Beck was hired into an obscure part of the Office of Management and Budget, known as the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, during the administration of George W. Bush.

‘Nancy was hired to be the hit man’ for industry, recalled Jim Aidala, who ran the EPA’s chemical office under President Bill Clinton and then, as a consultant to the chemical industry, watched Beck’s political rise.

There, Beck perfected the ‘slow-rolling’ of EPA chemical evaluations, according to a subsequent congressional investigation. And her office, according to that report, had ‘almost daily involvement on TCE.’”

Now, President Trump has nominated Beck to lead one of our nation’s top consumer-protection agencies. Can you guess how we feel about that? Yeah, we think Nancy Beck is one of the last people who should be in charge of protecting Americans from dangerous products. We need an advocate for consumers to chair the Consumer Protection Safety Commission.