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Water, Chemicals, Bodies, Cancer



Beth Alvarado has a lovely and sad essay at Guernica about the cancers that killed her husband and much of his family who lived in a neighborhood on the south side of Tucson heavily polluted by a plume of trichloroethylene, used to clean airplane parts at the nearby airport and industrial airfield. The geology beneath Tucson can store a lot of water, but it also means it’s quite susceptible to chemical contamination.

After his family had lived there for a decade or so, people in the neighborhood started dying. Clear patterns didn’t emerge, but sometimes several people in one family would die. Finally, the city tested the water. Some estimates showed TCE contamination at 1,000 times the federal health standards. They closed wells. There were court cases. Red lines were drawn around the housing developments, housing developments where 75 percent of the residents were Hispanic and low-income; once the developments were red-lined, it was impossible to sell those houses, so people stayed where they were. The cleanup began, but it was already too late. On Evelina Street alone, near the school Fernando’s siblings attended, near Mission Manor Park where they played, and near the swimming pool where they swam in the summers, thirty-four cancer cases were documented. Several families now have only one surviving member.

You don’t have to drink TCE or ingest it. TCE can enter your system through your skin when you bathe. When Fernando’s brother Eugene first saw a doctor for hemochromatosis, a rare liver condition that can be caused by exposure to chemicals, he told the doctor that he had lived in the area of Tucson that was affected by TCE. The doctor said he’d have to have complete exposure, like falling into a vat of chemicals, for that to be responsible for his condition. I did have complete exposure, Eugene said. I bathed in it for decades.

Eventually, they found a tumor growing on Eugene’s liver. He had a liver transplant.

TCE is a volatile organic compound, my friend, an environmental engineer, tells me. TCE wants to rise, it wants to be in the air instead of the water. It enters your body when you breathe its vapors in the air or when you drink water contaminated with it. TCE also enters your body through your skin, especially if you have cracks or abrasions or cuts. The first exposure to TCE, and the first drink of that water, initiates a metabolic process that can result in lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, and kidney and liver cancers. TCE is thought to act as a metabolic trigger. In other words, if you have a predisposition to a form of cancer, let’s say liver cancer, TCE increases your likelihood of developing that cancer, although it may not manifest for decades.

The effects of these chemicals can take so long to manifest themselves that it becomes very hard to receive compensation from the polluters and most people do not. That most of the people suffering in this Tucson neighborhood are Latino should be expected as the correlation between pollution exposure and race is well-documented and is a classic example of environmental racism.

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  • Rob in CT

    Minor technical point that I’ve absorbed over the years:

    TCE is a volatile organic compound, my friend, an environmental engineer, tells me. TCE wants to rise, it wants to be in the air instead of the water.

    Sorta. It wants to volitalize (become a gas), yes. TCE plumes in shallow groundwater often result in indoor air quality problems (something that is actually a big deal right now, driving a lot of cleanup work). I see it mostly with PCE cleanups (associated with dry cleaning mostly). The regulators are aware that, in a typical urban area, the main human exposure risk is indoor air (as people typically aren’t on private well water, and public wells are tested). Of course regulatory response varies state to state (and not really the way you’d think, just looking at red/blue).

    At the same time, TCE, like our friend PCE, is heavier than water. So the plume tends to sink to the bottom of whatever bit of groundwater it’s in, which makes it harder to get at than, say, gasoline.

    Solvent plumes are therefore kind of annoying to deal with. Though there are a number of proven technologies for doing it. They cost money, though.

    Typical cleanup cost for a run of the mill dry cleaner (like you’d see in a strip mall) is $500k-$2MM depending on the circumstances. For a major industrial site like the above, adjust those numbers up.

    edit: and of course this is just cleaning it up so people aren’t exposed in the future. Getting money for people who were already exposed is hard, and this goes back to proving causation.

    • trollhattan

      I like to think of TCE as paying the mortgage for about fifteen years working in environmental engineering.

      Thank you Air Force, thank you Dow. It’s a yuuuugely common industrial solvent, offered as a safe alternative to carbon tet and yes, gasoline (thinking of the famous government safety film on doing laundry with gasoline I believe Loomis provided earlier this year).

      Going from memory, in soil gas SVE and either carbon capture or thermal destruction are popular. In soil it’s tricky, but forcing it to gas phase and then treating as vapor works if the soil is sufficiently porous. In groundwater (what you really don’t want) it’s pump and treat with carbon. All options are labor-, equipment- and energy-intensive. Typical carbon treatment arrays have multiple vessels each containing perhaps a ton of carbon, which itself becomes waste unless recovered and reused. In reality, TCE never exists in a contaminant vacuum and other contaminants can greatly affect the capture and treatment protocols.

      TCE has both cancer and non-cancer hazards, summarized here. The battle over acceptable limits raged the entire time I worked in the industry; don’t know whether a final rule has been published yet.

      • Rob in CT

        Yup, SVE is the most common response for soil/soil gas contamination.

        For cleanup of groundwater plumes, you can do pump & treat (air sparge) or you can do in situ injections. Chemical Oxidization is the option I’ve seen most often for that. There’s another that I’m less familiar with.

        Funny you bring up carbon tet. I ran into that one years ago. Claims involved grain elevators, oddly enough (or rather, oddly I thought at the time).

        Apparently people used to pour carbon tet into the grain silo (from the top) so it would suffocate the critters getting into the grain. If a pipe sprang a leak, or a guy spilled a 5-gallon pail… well, no worries, right? It just volatilizes into the air. No muss, no fuss.

        Oh, wait, the groundwater is contaminated? How’d THAT happen? It just evaporates! I mean, it does, right? [Well, yes, but not neccessarily before it sinks into the ground, and it’s heavier than water so…]

        Oh, well, that was all accidental! Whoops! Whocouldknowed! Insurance money please. Kthxbye.

  • Compcat

    TCE is lipid soluble. You don’t have to have breaks in the skin to be exposed and bonus, you also inhale it. Farmers around my hometown were getting the highest exposure from showering in contaminated groundwater.

    In ground water it can biodegrade to vinyl chloride. Which is also special. There are contaminated sites with bioreactors that have been working on cleanup of groundwater for two generations of scientists’ entire careers. Though to be fair some of it is because of the amount of time of travel through the soil for deep wells, and the fact that those sites have lots of other fun chemicals as well.

    TCE is back in the news because Google is impacted. Hopefully, that will help some of the poorer impacted areas, like the state of Louisiana.

    • Rob in CT

      Farmers around my hometown were getting the highest exposure from showering in contaminated groundwater.

      Side note to those who (like me) live in areas prone to radon: this is true for radon too.

      If you are buying a house that’s on a well, rather than public water, it’s probably a good idea to test the well water for radon. You could do the air test in your basement and pass, but still be inhaling it in the shower (my understanding is that drinking water w/radon is also an exposure risk but a significantly lesser one).

  • Linnaeus

    DNAPLs…they’re what’s for dinner!

    • I once worked on a site contaminated with them. The guys who had been there for years called them “Snapple.”

  • 1) Hemochromatosis is not a “liver disease”,
    2) it is a genetic disease, that is, you inherit it by inheriting the genes for it, and
    3) it is not really “rare”.
    So your source material is wrong, and wrong, and wrong again.
    This is not to say that TCE is not a dangerous chemical, but it does not “cause hemochromatosis.”

    • Rob in CT

      Heh, what I get for not clicking through to the source article.

      These points are absolutely correct.

      My wife has it. She was born with it. That’s how it works.

      [It’s also not that bad. They occasionally draw some blood to keep her iron levels down. That’s it.]

      TCE is a carcinogen. That’s bad enough, without inventing other things, innit?

      • Rob in CT

        Actually, wait. Various credible sources (CDC, Mayo Clinic, etc) state that hemochromatosis can either be inherited or acquired. But then they basically ignore the “acquired” bit and talk about the genetic causes.

        If you drill down far enough, there is a chart of causes and the non-genetic ones appear to have to do with blood transfusion (presumably with iron-rich blood) and stuff like that, not exposure to TCE.

        But then, it looks to me like “hemochromatosis” may actually simply be “too much iron in blood” not “too much iron in blood caused by XYZ.” Thus, if TCE exposure screws up your liver and this results in too much iron in your system, that’s “hemochromatosis?” Maybe.

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