Trichloroethylene (TCE), a toxic carcinogen, recently gained attention in Milwaukee, when 250 Milwaukee residents first heard about this hazardous chemical from health officials knocking on their doors. They were evacuated from two apartment complexes in the area due to elevated levels of toxins remaining from the sites’ industrial history. Surprisingly, none of the tenants, despite experiencing short-term symptoms, were familiar with this harmful chemical.
This colorless liquid is found in certain factories for metal cleaning and can also be found in paint removers, adhesives, carpet cleaners, dry cleaning, and shoe polishes. Short-term exposure to TCE can result in dizziness, headaches, nausea, sleepiness, and confusion. Higher toxicity levels corresponding to prolonged exposure are associated with various health issues, including cancers, liver damage, and fetal defects, with effects that can manifest decades after exposure.
In Milwaukee County alone, there are 832 sites with a history of TCE pollution, and 261 of these sites are undergoing cleanup efforts. The remaining locations have been shuttered, suggesting that cleanup activities are complete, however, TCE may still be present.
Workplace studies have shown a six-fold higher risk of developing Parkinson's due to TCE exposure. Furthermore, TCE poses a growing nationwide concern, particularly as Parkinson's disease rates in the US surge, with a 35% increase in the last decade, predicted to double over the next 25 years, according to Dr. Ray Dorsey, a neurologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Environmental exposure to TCE is a significant factor contributing to this epidemic.
TCE usage reached its peak in the 1980s, with an annual production and use of over 830 million pounds, according to the National Institutes of Health. TCE is still widely used in the US, contaminating about 30% of the country's groundwater. The EPA anticipated that 250 million pounds of the chemical would be utilized yearly in 2020, with over 2 million pounds discharged into the environment through emissions and runoff. Some states have taken steps to partially restrict the use of TCE for commercial and industrial use, however, those living near hazardous waste sites face heightened risks despite these partial restrictions.
Tasha Stoiber, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, called the contamination at the Milwaukee apartment complexes a "significant failure" that reflected wider regulatory shortcomings across the country. Addressing this issue requires government intervention, policy changes, and increased awareness to protect public health. Public awareness and advocacy can play a crucial role in driving the necessary changes to protect communities from the risks associated with TCE and other hazardous chemicals.
[Sources: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; The Wall Street Journal; Spectrum News-Wisconsin]