EPA proposes ban on carcinogenic chemical that caused apartment evacuations in Milwaukee

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey, left, stands in support of Anne Anderson, whose son died of leukemia in 1981 and was exposed to water contaminated with the chemical trichloroethylene, or TCE. The two spoke Monday, Oct. 23, 2023, in Woburn, Mass., during an EPA press conference announcing its proposal to ban the chemical. (AP Photo/Michael Casey)

The Biden administration has proposed a ban on trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent that can cause cancer. The chemical was recently found in two apartment developments in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, causing evacuations due to health concerns.

On Oct. 23, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the proposal to ban the distribution, processing, and manufacturing of trichloroethylene, also known as TCE.

“The science is loud and clear on TCE. It is a dangerous toxic chemical and proposing to ban it will protect families, workers, and communities,” EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe said in a statement.

The proposed federal rule would prohibit most uses of TCE within a year of the rule being finalized. The EPA noted that safer alternatives to TCE are available for consumer products and that, for other industrial uses, the regulation would allow a longer period of transition to other materials. The proposal will be subject to a public comment period before it is finalized.

The American Chemistry Council, the trade association representing the chemical industry, said in an Oct. 23 statement that the proposed restriction was “inconsistent with the underlying science.” The environmental groups Earthjustice and the Environmental Working Group expressed their support for the administration’s decision.

“EPA followed the science, listened to impacted communities, and proposed one of the strongest chemical regulations in recent history,” Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, senior attorney for Earthjustice, said in a release.

TCE can cause kidney cancer after prolonged exposure, and research has also linked the solvent to increased risk of liver cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, according to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. The solvent can be found in soil, air, and water in locations where it is produced and used and can be transmitted to people via contaminated food and water and the inhalation of affected air.

In March and July, two apartment developments in Milwaukee were evacuated after high levels of TCE were discovered on-site. Community Within the Corridor, an affordable housing development, had 60 times the legal limit of TCE. At Lydell Apartments, levels were 10 times above the acceptable range.

Residents of Community Within the Corridor filed a class action lawsuit against the owners of the complex and reached a settlement in October. Michael Cerjak, the attorney who represented the tenants, told Fox 6 Milwaukee that $25,000 had been awarded to each unit, subject to judicial approval, and that tenants would have the option to file a civil lawsuit over TCE exposure.

In 2016, under former President Barack Obama, the EPA began the process of banning many uses of TCE. But after former President Donald Trump took office in 2017, the agency declined to finalize the regulation along with other restrictions on harmful substances.

“EPA is once again kowtowing to the chemical industry,” Richard Denison, then the lead senior scientist at Environmental Defense Fund, told Chemical & Engineering News in December 2017.In its Oct. 23 statement, the EPA said the proposed TCE regulation was in line with Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot” initiative, a whole-of-government approach to “end cancer as we know it.” Biden’s son, former Delaware attorney general Beau Biden, died in 2015 as a result of brain cancer.