EPA finds trichloroethylene poses an unreasonable risk to human health

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a revision to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) risk determination for trichloroethylene (TCE), finding that TCE, as a whole chemical substance, presents an unreasonable risk of injury to human health when evaluated under its conditions of use. The next step in the process is to develop a risk management rulemaking to identify and require the implementation of measures to manage these risks.

Uses and Risks Associated with TCE

TCE is a volatile organic compound used mostly in industrial and commercial processes. Consumer uses include cleaning and furniture care products, arts and crafts, spray coatings and automotive care products like brake cleaners.  

In the revised risk determination based on the 2020 risk evaluation, EPA found that TCE presents unreasonable risk to the health of workers, occupational non-users (workers nearby but not in direct contact with this chemical), consumers, and bystanders. EPA identified risks for adverse human health effects not related to cancer, including neurotoxicity and liver effects, from acute and chronic inhalation and dermal exposures to TCE. EPA also identified risks for cancer from chronic inhalation and dermal exposures to TCE.

EPA used the whole chemical risk determination approach for TCE in part because there are benchmark exceedances for multiple conditions of use (spanning across most aspects of the chemical life cycle from manufacturing (import), processing, commercial use, consumer use and disposal) for health of workers, occupational non-users, consumers, and bystanders, and because the health effects associated with TCE exposures are severe and potentially irreversible (including developmental toxicity, reproductive toxicity, liver toxicity, kidney toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and cancer).

Overall, EPA determined that 52 of the 54 conditions of use EPA evaluated drive the unreasonable risk determination. Two out of 54 conditions of use do not drive the unreasonable risk: consumer use of TCE in pepper spray and distribution in commerce. The revised risk determination supersedes the condition of use-specific no unreasonable risk determinations that were previously issued by order under section 6(i) of TSCA in the 2020 TCE risk evaluation.

The revised risk determination for TCE does not reflect an assumption that workers always and appropriately wear personal protective equipment (PPE), even though some facilities might be using PPE as one means to reduce workers’ exposure. This decision should not be viewed as an indication that EPA believes there is widespread non-compliance with applicable Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. In fact, EPA has received public comments from industry respondents about occupational safety practices currently in use at their facilities and will consider these comments, as well as other information on use of PPE, engineering controls and other ways industry protects its workers as potential ways to address unreasonable risk during the risk management process. The consideration of this information will be part of the risk management process.

EPA understands there could be occupational safety protections in place at some workplace locations. However, not assuming use of PPE in its baseline exposure scenarios reflects EPA’s recognition that certain subpopulations of workers exist that may be highly exposed because:

  • They are not covered by OSHA standards (e.g., self-employed individuals and public sector workers who are not covered by a state plan);
  • Their employers are out of compliance with OSHA standards;
  • OSHA’s chemical-specific Permissible Exposure Limits (largely adopted in the 1970’s) are described by OSHA as being “outdated and inadequate for ensuring protection of worker health;” or
  • The OSHA permissible exposure limit alone may be inadequate for ensuring protection of worker health, as is the case for TCE.

As EPA moves forward with a risk management rulemaking for TCE, the agency will strive for consistency with existing OSHA requirements or best industry practices when those measures would address the identified unreasonable risk. EPA will propose occupational safety measures in the risk management process that would meet TSCA’s statutory requirement to eliminate unreasonable risk of injury to health and the environment.

Next Steps for TCE

EPA is now moving forward on risk management to address the unreasonable risk presented by TCE. While the risk evaluation included a description of the more sensitive endpoint (fetal heart malformations), it was not relied on to determine whether there is unreasonable risk from TCE because of direction not to do so that was provided by the previous political leadership. Unreasonable risks were nevertheless identified for most uses of TCE, but the magnitude of the risk from exposures to TCE would have been greater had EPA relied upon the fetal cardiac defect (CHD) endpoint that had been used in previous EPA peer-reviewed assessments. Therefore, EPA developed existing chemical exposure limits based on both the immune endpoint and the CHD endpoint in support of risk management, and the public will have an opportunity to comment on these in the forthcoming proposed regulatory action.

Note that in taking this action, EPA has not conducted a new scientific analysis on this chemical substance and the risk evaluation continues to characterize risks associated with individual conditions of use in the risk evaluation of TCE in order to inform risk management.

In June 2021, EPA announced a path forward for the first 10 chemicals to undergo risk evaluation under TSCA to ensure the public is protected from unreasonable risks from these chemicals in a way that is supported by science and the law. The revised risk determination for TCE was developed in accordance with these policy changes, as well as the Biden-Harris Administration’s Executive Orders and other directives, including those on environmental justice, scientific integrity and regulatory review. EPA’s revisions ensure that the TCE risk determination better aligns with the objectives of protecting health and the environment under amended TSCA.

Separately, EPA is conducting a screening-level approach to assess risks from the air and water pathways for several of the first 10 chemicals, including TCE. The goal of the screening approach is to evaluate the surface water, drinking water, and ambient air pathways for TCE that were excluded from the 2020 risk evaluation, and to determine if there are risks that were unaccounted for in that risk evaluation. EPA expects to describe its findings regarding the chemical-specific application of this screening-level approach in its proposed risk management rule for TCE.

Additionally, EPA expects to focus its risk management action on the conditions of use that drive the unreasonable risk. However, EPA is not limited to regulating the specific activities found to drive unreasonable risk and may select from among a wide range of risk management requirements. As a general example, EPA may regulate upstream activities (e.g., processing, distribution in commerce) to address downstream activities (e.g., consumer uses) driving unreasonable risk, even if the upstream activities do not drive the unreasonable risk.

Read more on EPA’s website.

Source: U.S. EPA

Why the government fails to limit many dangerous chemicals in the workplace

Read the full story from ProPublica via NPR.

Paralyzed by industry lawsuits from decades ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has all but given up on trying to set a truly protective threshold for ortho-toluidine and thousands of other chemicals. The agency has only updated standards for three chemicals in the past 25 years; each took more than a decade to complete.

Road Map to the Worker Protection Standard for Agricultural Pesticides

This publication from North Carolina State University Extension is a simplified tool that can quickly guide farm managers, handlers, workers, and family farmers in safe handling of pesticides to stay in compliance with the Worker Protection Standard. For more detailed information, see EPA’s How to Comply manual.

Nail salon workers say proper ventilation can protect their reproductive health

Read the full story at Documented.

Last week, six years after it was first announced, New York State implemented long-awaited ventilation regulations in nail salons. The new regulations require nail salon owners to protect workers and clients by providing proper ventilation to filter out toxic particles and fumes. The roughly 7,000 nail salons across the state will be required to install a mechanical ventilation system or risk losing their license to operate. The regulations come as workers, supporters, and a growing number of experts have sounded the alarm about the reproductive health hazards women nail salon workers are exposed to daily. 

What lurks inside shipping containers

Read the full story in Hakai Magazine.

Seizure-inducing methyl bromide and carcinogenic formaldehyde are only some of the poisonous chemicals scientists found inside cargo containers.

Research fieldwork comes with safety challenges

by Lisa Sheppard, Prairie Research Institute

Prairie Research Institute (PRI) researchers and technicians may not know exactly which hazards they’ll face when they conduct fieldwork to study the natural world. What they do know is that there are plenty of dangers to prepare for as they start another field season.

“The safety aspects of being in the field are so different from laboratory work, where, for the most part, you can control your environment,” said Shari Effert-Fanta, PRI assistant director for facilities & safety.  “Staff can be working in very challenging environments where the hazards are likely out of their control, so it takes a lot more planning to prepare for fieldwork.”

Mosquito bites, thunderstorms, extreme heat, and rough terrain are just a few of the general threats that anyone can face, but there are also the dangers inherent in the research activities. PRI staff may be working along roadsides and in caves and mines, diving into rivers and lakes, and boating in remote areas.

Effert-Fanta and the PRI Safety Team provide education, research, and tools to help staff plan, prepare, and implement best practices in the field. A safety plan should include such things as the location of the nearest hospital and an alternate communication system besides cell phones. Staff also need the education to be able to adapt and adjust to new challenges that are presented to keep the team safe.

For archaeological field technicians who serve as excavators and surveyors under the direction of a research archaeologist, their primary safety concerns are dehydration, heat stroke, sharp tools, and deep holes, according to Tamira Brennan, curator of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey.

Supervisors hold weekly safety meetings in the field, reminding staff about hazards and how to prevent them. Supervisory staff also receive training in CPR and first aid and Occupational Safety and Health Administration training on trenching and shoring.

In the Havana, Illinois area, technicians from the Forbes Biological Station contribute to studies on the relationship of migratory birds to their habitats. Some of the primary safety concerns technicians face in the field are the weather—extreme temperatures and wind when staff are on the water—and the use of boats, ATVs, and large trucks, said Auriel Fournier, station director.

Principal investigators or team leaders ensure that technicians are trained on the equipment they’ll use and can use it safely. Technicians are also trained on spotting the signs of weather-related distress in themselves and in other field staff.

“We make it clear how they can raise concerns if they don’t feel safe, either in terms of their own comfort with a tool, or because of someone else,” Fournier said. “Sadly, safety issues aren’t just limited to boats and ATVs, but include people, both on the team and in the community.”

Preparation for fieldwork includes contacting law enforcement and conservation officers to let them know where and when technicians will be working, especially when night work is expected or in remote areas. Technicians also have permits to authorize their work in efforts to reduce the potential for negative interactions.


Media contacts: Shari Effert-Fanta, sfanta@illinois.edu, 217-244-2192; Tamira Brennan, tbrennan@illinois.edu, 217-244-8965; Auriel Fournier, auriel@illinois.edu, 217-300-8698

This story first appeared on the Prairie Research Institute News Blog. Read the original story.

25 years after Karen Wetterhahn died of dimethylmercury poisoning, her influence persists

Read the full story in Chemical & Engineering News.

Karen Wetterhahn was a rising star in 1996. She was making key advances in understanding biochemical reactions of the heavy metal chromium and how those can cause disease. She had launched a major interdisciplinary research program to understand the effects of heavy-metal pollutants in northern New England. She was serving in top administrative positions at Dartmouth College. And a program for women in science that she helped found was being emulated around the country. Then a shocking lab accident halted her trajectory: on June 8, 1997, Wetterhahn died from dimethylmercury poisoning. Her legacies remain, however. Twenty-five years later, Wetterhahn’s colleagues and those who never knew her still feel her influences on laboratory safety, the scientific method, and women in science.

Language justice boosts worker safety, empowers people, experts say

Read the full story at Environmental Factor.

Inclusivity requires greater effort to create multilingual spaces, according to speakers at a March 2 webinar titled “Promoting Environmental and Occupational Public Health Through Language Justice.” NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) hosted the event.

Language justice is the right of every person to speak, understand, and be understood in the language they prefer and in which they feel most articulate and powerful, according to the American Bar Association. Beyond legal settings, the principle is important when it comes to working with communities to share research information that relates to environmental and occupational health, noted NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP) Director Sharon Beard.

How Illinois’ ‘fragmented system’ of monitoring pesticide exposure ‘allows individuals to get poisoned over and over without any brakes’

Read the full story from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

A crew of farmworkers claimed they were sprayed with pesticides. What should have been a “rapid response” was a “big mess.”

Worker safety, environmental justice top priorities of NIEHS program

Read the full story at Environmental Factor.

Worker Training Program Director Sharon Beard spoke with me about climate-vulnerable occupations, disaster cleanup challenges, and more.