The chemical compound trichloroethylene, or TCE, has a long history in human industry, at one time being used as a general anesthetic and, more recently, frequently employed as an industrial solvent. It also happens to be a widespread contaminant in groundwater supplies in the United States. Because of its potential risks to human health, TCE is closely monitored in public water supplies—and should analogously be an issue of concern for those who draw their water from private wells.
These days, TCE—a generally colorless, sweet-smelling liquid—is most notably used to degrease metal components in industry. It also crops up in a variety of other industrial settings. Due to health risks, it hasn’t functioned as an anesthetic for decades.
Recent studies suggest that TCE may cause cancer; indeed, enough evidence exists that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified the chemical as potentially carcinogenic in its 2011 final health assessment, the official analysis incorporated into the agency’s Integrated Risk Information System database. Research so far indicates the strongest connection between exposure to TCE and incidences of kidney cancer—potentially via mutations to renal cells—but other types of cancer have been shown to be influenced by exposure as well: liver, cervical, and lymphoma.
The 2011 EPA assessment also acknowledged other deleterious health effects associated with TCE exposure. Notably, people suffering from both acute and chronic inhalation exposure to the chemical have evinced a variety of symptoms of the central nervous system, ranging from headaches and disorientation to weariness and euphoria. Other chronic-exposure issues include impacts to immune, endocrine, liver, and kidney function—including in people exposed to TCE through drinking water.
Contamination in Drinking Water
Wastewater emissions from industrial sources using TCE for degreasing, textile production, rubber processing, and other purposes provide the primary opportunity for chemical contamination of drinking water supplies. The EPA reports it as a leading groundwater contaminant; it cites statistics produced by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that up to roughly one-third of the country’s drinking-water sources may be infiltrated by TCE—though not necessarily at levels of concern.
At present, the EPA suggests that TCE concentrations of 5 micrograms per liter—the so-called “maximum contaminant level”—or below are an acceptable amount. A given state may have a more rigorous standard.
In addition to the potential for ingesting unhealthy amounts of the chemical through drinking water itself, there’s the additional concern of vaporized TCE entering household air via water sources. The Connecticut Department of Public Health reports that the chemical can also be absorbed through skin when showering or bathing with contaminated water.
TCE in Private Wells
Some 15 percent of U.S. residents draw their water supply from private wells, for which the EPA does not provide regulatory oversight. It’s the responsibility of well-users to keep tabs on contaminant levels in their water sources. The EPA recommends that households test their wells annually through a facility certified by the state—and more frequently if illnesses in the household are occurring; someone’s pregnant or nursing; when well infrastructure is repaired or overhauled; when neighbors report drinking-water contamination; or simply when some notable change is observed in water quality and character.
You can inquire about specific risks of TCE contamination—such as a potential local source—as well as find a certified testing facility by contacting your state’s department of public health.
If testing indicates that your well’s TCE levels exceed the EPA’s maximum contaminant level, your public-health authority can advise on mitigation efforts and accessing an alternative water supply if necessary.
Being aware of TCE and its potential danger is the first step in keeping your water safe and drinkable. Arrange a test today!
TCE in the Home
Homeowners need to be aware that TCE is found in some household products which can then be a potential source for TCE within the air supply of the house if not correctly stored and monitored. Everyday household products such as glues and adhesives, paint and spot removers, some rug cleaning fluids, some paints and also metal cleaners are just some of the items that you may have around the home that are a potential source of TCE. There is a recommended odor threshold which is unlikely to be measured by many homeowners unless they have specialist equipment, but fortunately at this level or beyond, many of us have the capability to detect the smell without the need for equipment. We all have different thresholds and differing abilities when it comes to a sense of smell but generally, if you can detect and odor then you need to consider getting it checked out.
Having pointed out the advantage of using your nostrils to detect a potential issue, you should not immediately be overly concerned about immediate danger as the possibility of health effects occurring is low even when the air levels are slightly higher than the guideline and detectable in the air. Prolonged exposure is when there should be cause for concern, so take sensible precautions by getting the odor checked and there should not be any long term ill effects from short term exposure over a short period of time.
About the Author
Aaron Trussell is a college student majoring in environmental sciences and engineering. He’s passionate about how his future career can help everyday people, and he blogs regularly for a number of websites in his spare time.