Industry slow to end use of toxic chemical cleaner TCE for vapor degreasing, while US EPA delays action on its proposed ban
Although some industrial firms are phasing out their use of the toxic cleaning chemical trichloroethylene (TCE) for vapor degreasing, the vast majority appear to be holding back to “wait and see” if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ever adopts its proposed ban on that use of TCE. This conclusion is based on a survey of 143 industrial facilities that reported air emissions of TCE within the United States.
Toxic-Free Future graded the industrial facilities based on their responses:
- 17 industrial plants earned a grade of A, B, or C for planning to replace TCE with a safer alternative, replacing or planning to replace TCE with an undisclosed alternative, or continuing to search for a safer alternative;
• 16 facilities were awarded a D grade for failing to search for safer alternatives or for switching to a “regrettable substitute” that poses other known hazards;
• Another 34 industrial sites were slapped with an F for failure to respond to stakeholder queries, despite repeated attempts; and
• The rest (76 facilities) were not graded because they didn’t use TCE for vapor degreasing.
Vapor degreasing is a process used in commercial settings to clean equipment or other items with hot vapor. TCE is heated, condenses onto parts placed in the degreasing unit, and carries contaminants away from those parts as it drips off.
According to EPA, between 45,000 and 107,000 workers, including 454 to 1,066 pregnant women, are at risk for serious adverse health effects from exposure to TCE used in vapor degreasing processes where they work or nearby. TCE poses serious health dangers, including fetal heart defects and cancer.
In January 2017, because of these health risks and the potential for exposure, EPA proposed a finding that using TCE for commercial vapor degreasing “presents an unreasonable risk to human health” under the newly revised Toxic Substances Control Act and formally proposed a rule to ban this use. EPA has not yet adopted a final rule to implement this pending ban.
Based on the findings of this report, a wholesale shift toward safer alternatives is not likely unless EPA swiftly finalizes a health-protective rule to ban TCE’s use in vapor degreasing. Every moment EPA delays its rule, workers are at an increased risk for serious health impacts from TCE exposure.
Toxic-Free Future launched its investigation in March 2017 to assess industry progress in replacing TCE with safer alternatives for use in vapor degreasing. We reached out to 143 facilities that may currently use TCE for vapor degreasing to confirm this use. We then asked about their plans to phase it out or about barriers preventing a phase-out. Several respondents described the ineffectiveness and/ or high cost of alternatives as obstacles. Some claimed their workers’ exposure to TCE is limited.
We urge industry to move more quickly to find and implement safer alternatives and urge EPA to stop delaying and finalize its proposed vapor degreasing rule with a renewed focus on safer alternatives.