WOBURN, Mass. (AP) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday proposed banning the cancer-causing chemical trichloroethylene, which can be found in consumer products including automobile brake cleaners, furniture care and arts and crafts spray coating.
The move would end a nearly four decade battle to ban the chemical known as TCE, which can cause sudden death or kidney cancer if a person is exposed to high levels of it, and other neurological harm even at lower exposure over a long period.
EPA’s recent risk-evaluation studies found that as much as 250 million pounds of TCE are still produced in the United States annually. One of the first places the chemical raised concern was in Massachusetts, where it was linked to contaminated drinking water in the city of Woburn. Two locations there were ultimately designated as massive Superfund sites. Monday’s news conference was held at one of them, a location which now serves as a transportation center.
“For far too long, TCE has left a toxic legacy in communities across America,” said Michal Freedhoff, the EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. “Today, EPA is taking a major step to protect people from exposure to this cancer-causing chemical.”
Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey, who has led the effort to ban TCE, welcomed the move.
“With this rule, we can see a future where we will no longer be manufacturing, processing and distributing a chemical known to be deadly,” Markey said. “We will no longer be exposing American families, communities and workers to a toxic chemical legacy that leaves questions, cancer and catastrophe in its wake.”
Markey called the effort personal, citing his long-time work with Anne Anderson, a resident-turned-activist whose son Jimmy died in 1981 of leukemia.
“Since Anne and I met in 1980, we have been partners in the effort to clean up Woburn, to get justice for her son, and to save other families from seeing their children fall sick as a result of contamination,” Markey said. “Thanks to the advocacy of Anne Anderson and the action of the EPA, the era of corporations using communities like Woburn as dumping grounds for toxic TCE is over.” A 1982 lawsuit over the contaminated water supply involved eight Woburn families, including the Andersons. The case garnered national attention and led to the book and movie titled “A Civil Action.”
The American Chemistry Council said in a statement that TCE has several important uses in packaging and in formulating products. The proposed rule “is inconsistent with the underlying science,” the council said, calling on the EPA to avoid unnecessarily restricting valuable industrial uses for the chemical.
“EPA must base its risk management proposals on best available science, including accurate assessments of exposure,” the industry group said. “Where uses of chemistries have decreased over time, this must be reflected in EPA’s underlying risk assessment, because decreased use reduces potential exposure.”
Meanwhile, environmental groups praised the proposed rule, which would take effect in a year.
“EPA followed the science, listened to impacted communities, and proposed one of the strongest chemical regulations in recent history,” Earthjustice Senior Attorney Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz said in a statement. “Some chemicals are simply too harmful to remain on the market.”
TCE is used to make refrigerants and in solvents that remove grease from metal parts. It is also used in carpet cleaners, laundry spot removers and hoof polish for horses. The chemical presents an “unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment” in 52 of 54 uses in industrial and consumer products, the EPA has found.
“I am overwhelmed that all of you are here to acknowledge everything that has happened and everything that was bad has turned good,” Anderson said. “I owe so much to you people to keep the fight going, making sure that everybody is safe and that toxic chemicals like TCE will no longer exist.”
The proposed ban stems from a major expansion of EPA’s regulatory powers under a landmark 2016 law that overhauled rules governing tens of thousands of toxic chemicals in everyday products, from household cleaners to clothing and furniture.
The statute authorized new rules for tens of thousands of toxic chemicals found in everyday products, including substances such as asbestos and TCE, that for decades have been known to cause cancer but were largely unregulated under federal law. Known as the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, the law was intended to clear up a hodgepodge of state rules governing chemicals and to update the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.
The 2016 law required the EPA to evaluate chemicals and put in place protections against unreasonable risks. The agency moved to ban asbestos last year and has also proposed banning methylene chloride, perchloroethylene and carbon tetrachloride.
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.