Tap water supplies for more than 14 million Americans are contaminated with a cancer-causing industrial solvent made notorious by the book and film “A Civil Action,” according to an Environmental Working Group investigation released today.
The chemical is trichloroethylene, or TCE. Under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency is retreating from an earlier proposal to ban key uses of the chemical, and it is excluding water, air and soil pollution from a safety assessment under the nation’s overhauled toxic chemicals law.
Drinking TCE-contaminated water has been linked to liver and kidney damage, and to cancers like leukemia. It has also been linked to birth defects, but EPA documents raise concern that the agency will downplay important evidence that TCE exposure causes heart defects in developing fetuses.
“People whose water contains TCE can be exposed not just by drinking it, but also by inhaling it while bathing, washing dishes and doing other household activities,” said Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG. “Communities across the country have water with potentially harmful levels of this toxic solvent, but many people don’t know about the risk they face when they turn on the tap.”
In 2015, the latest year for which comprehensive data are available, TCE was detected in EPA-mandated tests by more than 300 public water systems in 36 states. EWG’s Tap Water Database, which aggregates test results from utilities nationwide, shows that in about half of those systems, average annual levels of TCE were above what some health authorities say is safe for infants and developing fetuses. EWG’s interactive map shows the locations of all systems with TCE contamination in 2015.
In December 2016, the EPA proposed banning uses of TCE as an aerosol degreaser and a spot cleaner. It was the first ban proposed in more than 25 years under the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, the nation’s primary chemical law. A month later, the EPA also proposed banning TCE in vapor degreasing. The ban on these uses would have protected the health of tens of thousands of workers who come in contact with TCE or TCE-containing products, and over 100,000 people who live near businesses that use and discharge TCE.
After aggressive lobbying from the chemical industry, Trump’s EPA signaled plans to scrap the proposed bans on TCE for aerosol degreasing, spot cleaning and vapor degreasing. The Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, a trade association representing TCE manufacturers, repeatedly requested that the EPA and former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delay decision-making on the proposed bans, and its requests were granted.
“The chemical industry’s efforts paid off,” said Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney at EWG. “This is just the latest of the Trump administration’s many actions to make life more toxic for Americans. Allowing this dangerous chemical to remain in commerce is further evidence that the Trump administration will abandon public health at the directive of the chemical industry.”
In the absence of federal leadership, some states are taking actions to protect their residents from TCE. Minnesota has set a health-based guideline for TCE in drinking water more than 10 times lower than the federal legal limit. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has published recommendations for mitigating TCE contamination in indoor air and guidance for addressing toxic chemical vapor intrusion.
“Concerned families can remove or reduce TCE from their tap water with an inexpensive carbon-based filter,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., EWG’s senior science advisor for children’s environmental health. “But to protect everyone, coordinated state and federal action is required. People should not have to bear the costs of pollution caused by industry.”
Minnesota health officials also recommend ventilating indoor air while bathing or showering, cooking, and while running the dishwasher or washing machine, as an effective way to reduce the amount of TCE in indoor air.