Photo courtesy of the Ohio Department of Health.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in FLOW’s 2021 Report: Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency.
By Dave Dempsey
The many chemical contaminants in Michigan’s groundwater, coupled with the lack of environmentally sustainable federal and state chemical policies, continue to put Michigan at risk. An example is trichloroethylene (TCE), a cancer-causing manufactured chemical that has contaminated groundwater at more than 300 locations in Michigan.
In 2020, Minnesota became the first state in the country to outlaw many remaining uses of TCE.
Michigan should follow suit.
Commonly used as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts during manufacturing processes or to make additional chemicals, TCE has also been used to extract greases, oils, fats, waxes, and tars by the textile industry; in dry cleaning operations; and in consumer products such as adhesives, paint removers, stain removers, lubricants, paints, varnishes, pesticides, and cold metal cleaners.
TCE released into the environment can pollute soil, groundwater, and the air. TCE’s high mobility in soil often results in groundwater contamination. TCE is slow to degrade and time-consuming to mitigate when it contaminates soil and groundwater. When spilled on the ground, TCE can travel through soil and water and contaminate drinking water supplies, including public and private wells.
In 2020, Minnesota became the first state in the country to outlaw many remaining uses of TCE. Michigan should follow suit.
It can also evaporate. TCE vapors can enter buildings through cracks in the foundation, pipes, and sump and drain systems, thus contaminating indoor air. This phenomenon is known as vapor intrusion. At several Michigan locations where housing and office structures were built on contamination sites, TCE was left in soils rather than being excavated and removed, and has vaporized into these buildings through foundations and basements. In some cases, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has temporarily evacuated occupants of the buildings because of the danger of air inhalation of TCE.
TCE has been characterized as carcinogenic to humans through all routes of exposure and poses a significant human health hazard. Exposure to large amounts of the chemical may lead to coma, nerve damage, or death. TCE is known to interfere with early life development and lead to developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, and neurotoxicity. This chemical has also been linked to damage to eyesight, hearing, the liver, the kidney, balance, heartbeat, blood, nervous system, and respiratory system.
In the workplace, exposure to TCE may cause scleroderma, a systemic autoimmune disease, and, in men, it has been observed to result in decreases to sex drive, sperm quality, and reproductive hormone levels. TCE has been linked to Parkinson’s disease. There is controversy over a decision made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Trump Administration to reverse findings that TCE exposure to human embryos causes heart defects.
Dumped in shallow, sandy pits decades ago, TCE has contaminated 13 trillion gallons of groundwater in Mancelona, Michigan, making the Wickes Manufacturing plume the largest TCE plume in the United States. By contrast, the entire Grand Traverse Bay contains about 10 trillion gallons of water.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1977 banned the use of TCE in food, cosmetic, and drug products in the United States. In Canada, TCE is no longer manufactured, and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act of 1999 is intended to significantly reduce the use and release of TCE as a solvent degreaser into the environment. Several other countries, including Sweden and Germany, have regulations to control the use, and subsequent risks, of TCE.
In November 2020 a U.S. EPA study found that 52 of 54 uses of TCE still permitted present unreasonable risk to worker and consumer health. The EPA has two years to finalize a rule to reduce the risks posed by the 52 uses.
State action also has a place in efforts to protect human health from TCE. On May 16, 2020, Minnesota became the first state in the U.S. to ban high-risk uses of TCE. In effect, beginning June 1, 2022, any facility that is required to have an air emissions permit by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency may not use TCE.
This ban was enacted largely due to the work of the Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group (NCCG) of White Bear Township, Minnesota, which sought the ban after the Water Gremlin, a local fishing sinker manufacturer, had admitted to leaking elevated levels of TCE for nearly 17 years.
Dumped in shallow, sandy pits decades ago, TCE has contaminated 13 trillion gallons of groundwater in Mancelona, Michigan, making the Wickes Manufacturing plume the largest TCE plume in the United States. By contrast, the entire Grand Traverse Bay contains about 10 trillion gallons of water. Taxpayers have spent more than $27 million to provide safe drinking water to Mancelona residents of properties whose private wells have been contaminated by TCE.
Several case studies have been performed to analyze the effectiveness of TCE alternatives in the United States. One example is a Schick facility in Verona, Virginia, that manufactures a variety of steel blades and uses TCE in both cleaning and degreasing operations. The company made TCE elimination a priority. The resulting process modifications reduced occupational and public risk and resulted in an approximate cost reduction of $250,000 from reduced energy use and material and hazardous waste disposal costs. Several companies in Michigan have also made the switch to TCE-free degreasing products.
Given the uncertainty of federal policy, Michigan should not wait to take action to limit most TCE uses, just as Michigan did not wait for the EPA to set enforceable standards for toxic PFAS in drinking water. Because it has a paramount interest in protecting the health of its residents, Michigan should act with urgency to pass a state law to control TCE.