EPA proposes ban on ‘extremely toxic’ TCE, found at dry cleaning sites, other areas throughout NC

By: - October 24, 2023 2:15 pm
A photo of several white chefs' uniforms outside a hotel. They are encased in plastic.

Dry cleaning solvents contain toxic chemicals, and because of spills, these facilities can contaminate the soil and groundwater with TCE. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Camp Lejune and Cherry Point. Chemtronics in Swannanoa and Cristex Drum in Oxford.

All of these North Carolina Superfund sites — as well as hundreds of other locations statewide — have been contaminated with TCE, which the EPA calls “an extremely toxic chemical” known to cause liver cancer, kidney cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. TCE also damages the central nervous system, liver, kidneys, immune system, reproductive organs, and the developing fetus.

Yesterday the EPA announced it was proposing a ban on all uses of TCE, also known as trichloroethylene. If approved, the rule would take effect in one year for consumer products and most commercial uses and would implement stringent worker protections on the limited remaining commercial and industrial uses that would be phased down over a longer period, according to an EPA press release.

TCE is widespread in the environment, including in groundwater and soil at Superfund sites, dry cleaners, metal fabricators and other places where solvents were used. The chemical is present in many cleaning and furniture care products, degreasers and even tire repair sealants.

When TCE is present in the groundwater and soil, it can off-gas, and then contaminate the air inside buildings. This is known as vapor intrusion, and it’s common at many highly contaminated areas.

There are an estimated 1,500 contaminated dry cleaning sites in North Carolina, according to state records; the types of pollutants are as yet unknown at these locations. Only a third of contaminated dry cleaning sites participate in the Department of Environmental Quality’s voluntary cleanup program.

This map shows 500 known contaminated dry cleaning sites, where the owners are participating in a voluntary cleanup program. There are at least 1,500 more contaminated dry cleaning sites statewide where the toxic chemical TCE is present. (Map: DEQ)
This map shows 500 known contaminated dry cleaning sites, where the owners are participating in a voluntary cleanup program. There are at least 1,500 more contaminated dry cleaning sites statewide, although the type of contaminants is yet unknown. (Map: DEQ)

In addition, the solvent was found in the drinking water of several homes in Stony Hill, a Wake Forest subdivision, in 2006. It came from a shed where a business used the solvent to clean circuit boards and then poured it into a pipe that went into the ground. The EPA spent more than $3.7 million to provide bottled water to affected homes, while connecting some residences to Aqua NC’s community well system, and installing whole-house carbon filtration systems in other homes.

TCE has also contaminated the groundwater beneath the former Tarheel Army Missile Plant in east Burlington; the pollution has migrated beneath nearby homes and into a nearby creek that eventually feeds the Haw River. The neighborhood is connected to public utilities, so those homes’ drinking water is not affected by the TCE plume.

TCE also can co-occur with a probable carcinogen 1,4-Dioxane, which was added to the solvent to stabilize it, according to the N.C. Water Resources Research Institute.

Here are the Superfund sites in North Carolina with known TCE contamination in the groundwater, soil and/or air:

  • ABC One Hour Cleaners, Jacksonville, Onslow County
  • Aberdeen Contaminated Groundwater, Aberdeen, Moore County
  • Blue Ridge Plating, Arden, Buncombe County
  • Shelby Fiber, Shelby, Cleveland County
  • Macon Lagoon, Cordova, Richmond County
  • Chemtronics, Swannanoa, Buncombe County
  • Cherry Point Marine Corps Station, Havelock, Craven County
  • Cristex Drum, Oxford, Granville County
  • CTS of Asheville, Buncombe County
  • Davis Park Road TCE site, Gastonia, Gaston County
  • FCX Statesville, Iredell County
  • Geigy Chemical, Aberdeen, Moore County
  • Hemphill Road TCE, Gastonia, Gaston County
  • Jadco-Hughes, Belmont, Gaston County
  • JFD Electronics, Oxford, Granville County
  • National Starch & Chemical, Salisbury, Rowan County
  • North Belmont PCE, Gaston County
  • NCSU Lot 86 Farm Unit 1, Raleigh, Wake County
  • Ram Leather Care, Charlotte, Mecklenburg County

The caption on the map has been corrected to say that the types of pollutants are unknown at 1,500 contaminated dry cleaning sites; the previous version said these sites were contaminated with TCE.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.