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Enforcement and Assistance in New England

Reducing Emission Levels of Hazardous Chemicals

Photo of a metal finishing shop.Case Study - Rhode Island Jewelry
Rhode Island is known as the “Jewelry Capital of the World.” It is home to more than 1,000 precious metal and costume jewelry manufacturers that export their products worldwide. These manufacturers employ various metal finishing techniques to enhance a product’s decorative appearance and its resistance to tarnishing and corroding, as well as enhancing a number of other properties necessary for the product’s performance.

One hazardous chemical commonly used by these manufacturers to clean metal parts is trichloroethylene or TCE. In the workplace, TCE inhalation can result in symptoms such as sleepiness, fatigue, headache, confusion, and feelings of euphoria. Additionally, it can affect the kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal system, and the skin. In both the workplace and the environment, TCE can contaminate drinking water. TCE vapor in the air can irritate one’s eyes, nose and throat and contribute to asthma and other respiratory diseases. While the cancerous properties of TCE are not certain, data suggests that TCE is a likely human carcinogen. As a result, the use of TCE by metal finishers is subject to stringent federal and state regulatory requirements.

EPA’s efforts to reduce the emission levels of TCE by metal finishers were based in part on data collected from an air monitoring station in Olneyville, an environmental justice section of Providence, RI. The date indicated ambient TCE levels as high as 4 parts per million. It is typical to find many small metal finishing facilities dispersed within the neighborhoods of this city.

To address this issue, EPA partnered with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RI DEM). As a first step, RI DEM conducted a door to door search of old mill buildings in the Providence area and found 40 facilities that were using TCE. RI DEM sent each facility a letter explaining how to comply with state and federal regulations, and then we provided follow-up in the form of a compliance assistance site visit to each facility. In response, some of the facilities came into compliance, some went out of business, and some switched to aqueous cleaning systems or eliminated their cleaning process altogether.

EPA provided the 28 companies that were still using TCE with individual assistance to help them develop an alternative cleaning process. Working in conjunction with RI DEM, RI Department of Public Health, the Narragansett Bay Commission, and the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute, Click icon for EPA disclaimer. we held a workshop to demonstrate alternative cleaning processes, including ultra sound and different detergent cleaners.

EPA also we conducted on-site visits to gather samples for testing in the Surface Cleaning Lab at the Massachusetts Toxic Use Reduction Institute and performed bench scale trials to determine the effectiveness of alternative processes. Our results indicate that three companies have eliminated the use of TCE in their cleaning processes, amounting to approximately 25,000 pounds of TCE a year.

Photo of a military belt buckle.The impact of this work is expanding beyond Rhode Island and continuing into 2008. For example, we discovered that a vast majority of the facilities in our project are under contract to the Department of Defense (DOD) to clean and polish military uniform insignia such as belt buckles, buttons, medals, stars and bars. Through our assistance efforts, one such company was able to eliminate at least 12,500 pounds of TCE. Given the overwhelming success of our efforts in Rhode Island, we are now working with the DOD officials to explore ways to reduce or eliminate the use of TCE by all of its contractors. DOD is very interested in achieving a national changeover from TCE to alternative cleaning methods.

For further information, visit EPA's Compliance Assistance Centers page for metal finishing assistance.

Serving Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, & 10 Tribal Nations

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