The current world is a (sad) testimony to the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Though the process of moving from an agrarian economy had its benefits, it is sobering to think of the heavy price involved.
For starters, there are presently over 350,000 synthetic chemicals blanketing the atmosphere, seeping into the soil, or carpeting the water bodies. This is scarcely good news as these chemicals lead to environmental pollution and health issues.
However, some are more toxic than others in the sense that the only way to stay safe is to completely ban them. One such deadly industrial chemical in existence is called trichloroethylene or TCE. In this article, we will explore the history of this chemical along with the damage it is capable of.
Table of Contents
TCE’s Origins and Industrial Uses
The history of trichloroethylene dates back to 1864 when it was first prepared by a German chemist called Emil Fischer. It was not until 1908 that commercial production of the chemical began across Europe (gradually spreading to other parts of the world).
As a halocarbon, TCE was originally used in metal equipment as a degreasing solvent. Over the years, plenty of other applications were discovered, including carpet and tool cleaners, paint removers, adhesives, cleaning wipes, and more. Given its vast use cases, TCE was an important part of companies manufacturing household products.
Threat to Animals and Humans
In laboratory experiments, TCE led to cancers of the liver and kidneys among animals. This chemical is also highly destructive to animals’ auditory system, specifically their spiral ganglion cells and cochlea.
In some species, reproductive and developmental health is also affected. As for humans, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that prolonged exposure may cause significant damage to the central nervous system.
Besides that, humans are vulnerable to developing cancers of the cervix, liver, lungs, kidneys, etc. This was evidenced by the Camp Lejeune water contamination catastrophe. Nearly one million residents were exposed to toxic levels of TCE through supply water contaminated by an offshore dry-cleaning facility.
Free healthcare provisions under the Obama administration enabled the victims to seek treatment for conditions like Parkinson’s disease, infertility, renal toxicity, cancer, and more. However, President Joe Biden made legal justice possible through the Camp Lejeune Justice Act (CLJA) of 2022.
Although the litigation was moving rather slowly until mid-2023, significant progress has been made as of September. Around 117,000 administrative claims have been filed.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has estimated a huge $3.3 trillion in settlements. However, the Camp Lejeune lawsuit payout per person is yet to be decided based on each case’s injuries and timeline.
According to TorHoerman Law, a rough range for individual cases in the Camp Lejeune litigation extends from $10,000 to $500,000. In US history, this civil lawsuit earned the name of the largest-ever mass tort. This speaks volumes of the damage TCE has done and may do in the future.
The Environmental Repercussions
TCE may exist in the gaseous form when released into the atmosphere, or it may dissolve in water. Since the atmosphere has many more chemicals, TCE tends to react with them. As for the soil or oceans, bacteria break it down within 2 to 10 days. This means the chemical bioaccumulates to a certain extent.
It does not bind well with the soil and often makes its way into the groundwater. Also, higher concentrations of it remain confined to the local area where it was emitted.
Now, TCE in the air also breaks down into chemicals like formyl chloride, phosgene, hydrochloric acid, etc. But this process takes anywhere from 6 to 40 days, depending upon the chemical’s concentration.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the main reason why TCE is a global pollutant is because it evaporates easily. For instance – open surface water will never show traces of TCE because most of it is evaporated.
However, the rest seeps down into the soil and moves into the groundwater, thereby polluting public water systems. Also, TCE may evaporate from the groundwater and enter homes through pipes and cracks in the foundation, causing indoor air pollution.
Some Solace at Last
After decades of destructive consequences, the EPA has stepped out of its regulatory role into a prohibitory one. As of October 2023, a proposal was made for a complete ban on TCE production.
This did come as a blow to the industries where the chemical reigned as their hero. Research has begun in the quest for alternatives, particularly non-toxic ones. For instance – the use of TCE in paints is expected to be replaced by powder coating.
Similarly, substitutes for refrigerants, tool and carpet cleaners, adhesives, etc., should also be available shortly.
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