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A Major Step Towards Cleaner Water and Soil

EPA releases a pivotal health assessment addressing the health effects of trichloroethylene.

Child playing in water

A major milestone for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and more importantly, the protection of human health and the environment, was achieved on September 28, 2011, with EPA’s release of its much anticipated final health assessment for trichlorethylene (TCE).

TCE, a colorless liquid, is used mainly as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts and other cleaning operations. It is also an ingredient used in paint and spot removers. TCE was one of the contaminants identified in well water in a case made famous in the Hollywood motion picture “A Civil Action” starring John Travolta and Robert Duval. 

The TCE final assessment was posted to EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) database, an internationally recognized human health assessment program that evaluates risk information on health effects that may result from exposure to environmental contaminants.

While the IRIS database contains high-quality human health information on hundreds of chemicals of concern, the completion of the TCE assessment is especially notable due to the chemical’s volatile nature and widespread use as a chlorinated solvent.

TCE is one of the most common man-made chemicals found in the environment and is present at hundreds of Superfund sites across the country.  It has also been detected in groundwater and is able to move from contaminated water and soil into the indoor air of overlying buildings, a major public health concern. The assessment concludes that TCE is carcinogenic to humans and poses a human health hazard for effects on the central nervous system, the kidney and liver, the immune and male reproductive system, and the developing fetus. 

The final assessment’s release marks a major accomplishment for the Agency as it provides federal, state, local and private decision makers with much needed cancer and non-cancer toxicity values for TCE, allowing them to make important risk management decisions to protect public health. Additionally, it allows for better understanding of the risks posed to communities from exposure to TCE in soil, water and air.

"This assessment is an important first step, providing valuable information to the state, local and federal agencies responsible for protecting the health of the American people," said Paul Anastas, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Research and Development. "It underscores the importance of EPA's science and, in particular, the critical value of the IRIS database for ensuring that government officials and the American people have the information they need to protect their health and the health of their children."

EPA’s TCE assessment has undergone several levels of peer review including, agency review, interagency review, public comment, external peer review by EPA’s Science Advisory Board and a scientific consultation review in 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences.

The final release of the TCE assessment is a testament to the success of the recently improved IRIS process, restructured in 2009 to reinforce independent review and ensure the timely publication of assessments. In July 2011, EPA announced further changes to the IRIS program in response to recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences. EPA will continue to strengthen IRIS in an effort to ensure that the best possible science is used to protect human health and the environment from chemicals like TCE.

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