Among the important chemicals for industrial usage, Trichloroethylene, or TCE, has enjoyed a special place. The chemical was first synthesized back in 1864.
However, it has been widely used as a pharmaceutical-grade anesthetic for a little over 50 years. Healthcare professionals in the branch of Dentistry used this chemical for analgesic purposes, too. These would include furuncle incisions, short-term operations, and extraction procedures.
Some of the names under which this chemical is usually traded are known as Tricky, Trilene, and Trimar. In light of its industrial uses, it’s hard to imagine that this chemical could ravage thousands of lives, right? Unfortunately, TCE may have a more disturbing past than many imagine. Let’s take a closer look at its notorious story.
What is Trichloroethylene (TCE)?
Trichloroethylene is an organic liquid chemical that has no distinct color or odor. It does not occur naturally but is a result of man-made chemical synthesis.
Besides its original use as an anesthetic, this organic chemical also has several other industrial uses. These include:
- Solvent degreaser for metal parts
- Manufacture of refrigerants
- Household products such as aerosol cleaning, cleaning pipes, paint removers, spray adhesives, etc.
- Spot remover for dry cleaning facilities
- Carpet cleaner
- Manufacture of other chemicals through chemical bonds
- Textile processing firms use this chemical to scour wool
How Harmful Can TCE Exposure Be?
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has established the ‘Hierarchy of Controls’ for factories using TCE in their manufacturing process. This in itself indicates that Trichloroethylene comes under hazardous substances.
The following is the order on an inverted pyramid for the Hierarchy of Controls:
- PPE – Here, the workers are required to wear proper protective equipment while handling TCE.
- Administrative Controls – The next recommended order is to change the way workers work while handling TCE.
- Engineering Controls – In case of any danger, it is time to isolate people from the hazardous substance, in this case, TCE.
- Substitution – At this stage, it is recommended to substitute or replace the hazardous substance.
- Elimination – The final order is to completely remove the hazardous substance physically.
Now, what can be the consequences of failing to maintain this hierarchal order? First, the foremost danger is kidney cancer. But that is not all. One incident that exposed TCE for the toxic chemical that it is was the Camp Lejeune water contamination crisis (1953 – 1987).
Prolonged exposure and ingestion of water contaminated with TCE and benzene claimed hundreds of lives and crippled thousands of others with:
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Cancers of the bladder, kidney, liver, breast, etc.
- Neurological defects
- Female infertility issues
- Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
- Birth Defects
After in-depth government investigations, the victims were provided free medical care under President Barrack Obama’s Janey Ensminger Act of 2012. Fast-forward to 2022, the Federal government finally passed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 to extend compensation for the losses endured during the crisis. The Act was officially signed on August 9th, 2022, by President Joe Biden.
Firms like TorHoerman Law have witnessed claimants receive anywhere between $10,000 and $500,000 in settlements. The incident’s menacing echoes linger even today. It proved that prolonged exposure to TCE can only do harm.
How Is One Exposed to TCE?
With that being said, it is equally important to understand how easy or difficult it is to find yourself exposed to TCE. According to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Trichloroethylene is found in soil, water, and air.
However, its concentration is the highest in the air, especially in areas with greater industrialization. To put things into perspective, TCE concentrations in highly urbanized US cities may range between 0.01 ppb to 3.4 ppb. Factory workers are the most affected, sometimes inhaling up to 100 ppm of the toxic chemical!
As for the general populace, they are mostly exposed to TCE through direct contact with water or substances contaminated by the chemical. Even some consumer products in supermarkets may be tainted with it.
Ways to Minimize TCE Exposure
Since TCE is so prevalent in the modern world, what are some ways in which one can avoid being exposed to huge volumes of it?
It is recommended that every individual directly exposed to a TCE work environment wear protective equipment at all times. Then, water quality must be routinely tested for any hazardous chemicals, including TCE.
If the results are positive, such water consumption is to be avoided. Soil should also be tested regularly for pollutants in it. If the soil is contaminated with TCE, children should not be allowed to play in that area. In the case of an irrigation facility, it must be abandoned.
Did you know that in its Public Health Statement, the CDC revealed that the US Environment Protection Agency had discovered nearly 1051 sites with serious hazards like TCE? These areas make it to the National Priorities List (NPL) for long-term site clean-up.
If any person is exposed to TCE, they’re not at harm immediately (unless directly ingested). The degree of harm depends upon the exposure dosage, duration, frequency, and route. Other factors to consider are age, family health history, and lifestyle.
In summation, TCE has a long dark history of quickly going from an ordinary anesthetic to a silent killer. Protection is the only rational defense.