From water & into the air: indoor pollutant poses health risks

By Karla Simon, Industrial Hygienist, U.S. Army Public Health CommandMay 1, 2014

Clean Air Month
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We often think about the "dirty air" outdoors, but the indoor air quality can cause problems, too. There are thousands of air pollutants, one in particular trichloroethylene (try-klo-ro-eth-leen) or TCE, has been ranked by the Environmental Protection Agency as one of most common pollutants. Many communities are discovering that TCE is seeping out of the ground underneath them and into the air that they breathe. The vapors can leach out of the soil, through a building's slab or foundation cracks and build up in the air. A building occupant can breathe in these unhealthy vapors. TCE has been identified at more than 1,500 hazardous waste sites. Some of these properties are previously or currently owned by the military and other government agencies.

Trichloroethylene is a clear liquid and has a distinctive sweet odor. The chemical is primarily used as an industrial metal degreaser and solvent. It is also used in consumer products such as paint removers, strippers, adhesives, spot removers and rug-cleaning fluids. It does not occur naturally in the environment. TCE can also persist in groundwater. Over time, TCE can leak from industrial sites, migrating out of contaminated soil into groundwater. Once it is in the groundwater, it can pollute private and public drinking water wells.

When does TCE become a health threat? Drinking or breathing high levels may damage the nervous system causing symptoms like headaches, dizziness and confusion. It can mimic the effects of drinking alcohol, and if alcohol is consumed within a few hours after exposure to TCE, exaggerate the alcohol effects by increasing the feeling of drunkenness.

The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry cites studies that confirm TCE causes liver, kidney, immune system, hormonal gland and developmental effects in people. Other data suggest that exposure to TCE is associated with cancer of the kidneys and liver. TCE vapors can irritate the eyes, nose and throat. Frequent or prolonged skin contact can cause rashes and irritation.

Most non-work related exposures are identified because of contaminated wells. If you suspect that you or your community may be exposed to TCE, have your water tested. Local municipalities frequently test drinking water for impurities to make sure it meets EPA guidelines. However, testing of a private water supply is the responsibility of the property owner. The best way to remove TCE from drinking water is a granular activated carbon filter. There are two types of filters: whole house and point-of-use. To determine which one will work best for you consider how much water you use, plumbing access, and depending on the level of contamination, whether you need to protect against breathing in vapors during water use (such as showering, washing dishes or flushing toilets).

The EPA has worked with many communities to clean up TCE contamination and has published information about previous and ongoing projects. To learn more information about TCE and ways to reduce exposure, visit the EPA website

Related Links:

U.S. Army Public Health Command

Environmental Protection Agency