What is TCE and how does Water Gremlin use it?
Trichloroethylene (TCE) is a man-made chemical that can be a liquid or gas. It is mainly used as a solvent in manufacturing to degrease metal parts. It can also be used in the production of other industrial chemicals. A variety of home products may contain TCE, including wood finishes, glues and adhesives, paint or paint removers, spot cleaners, and metal cleaners.
Breathing TCE, especially at high levels or over long periods of time, can cause negative health effects. Water Gremlin has used TCE to clean and coat the battery terminal posts prior to battery assembly at other facilities.
Where is Water Gremlin located?
Water Gremlin makes fishing sinkers and battery terminals, and is located at 4400 Otter Lake Road in White Bear Township.
How are the Water Gremlin facility’s TCE emissions controlled?
The facility’s pollution control system for TCE uses a carbon adsorber. Exhaust from the TCE process is vented through the adsorber, where the TCE is condensed out and collected for proper disposal.
Water Gremlin’s MPCA-issued air quality permit contains emission limits for TCE and specifies how the control equipment should be operated and what kinds of monitoring and reporting they are required to do.
How did TCE escape from the facility?
The carbon adsorber was not functioning properly. Carbon adsorption is commonly used to clean air emissions. The carbon becomes less efficient at capturing pollutants over time and must be replaced. In the case of Water Gremlin, it appears the carbon adsorber lost efficiency quicker than expected, to the point where it was functioning at various levels of control, including barely functioning. This allowed TCE to be vented from the building at levels that may have been much higher than allowed.
How long have these emissions been occurring?
On January 14, 2019, the MPCA requested Water Gremlin to voluntarily shut down the part of their process that emits TCE. They complied and are no longer emitting TCE. MPCA staff are working to understand how the TCE emissions occurred and at what magnitude.
How far did they travel?
MPCA staff have run computer models that suggest the area of concern for TCE emissions does not extend farther than 1 to 1.5 miles from the facility. This is a conservative estimate, meaning the reality could be less.
Why wasn’t this caught sooner?
The facility is required operate the adsorber any time they are coating with TCE, and to operate it in a way that maintains 95% control of TCE emissions. However we now know the adsorber was not achieving that level of control. The MPCA inspected the facility several times over the years while the equipment was operating, but the fact it wasn’t achieving the required control was not reported by the company nor apparent to the inspectors.
Why are they still operating if they did this?
The MPCA has authority to order a shutdown if public health may be endangered. We requested Water Gremlin to shut down the TCE line on January 14, 2019, and they did so the same day. That production line remains shut down. They can continue to operate their other processes that do not involve TCE.
The TCE line will remain shut down until the MPCA and MDH are confident that public health will be protected.
Are they going to be penalized?
The MPCA has an open enforcement case regarding the TCE emissions that could result in penalties or other legal actions.
What are the health effects of TCE?
With most environmental contaminants, the risk to a person is generally determined by the amount of exposure, duration of exposure, and the toxicity of the substance. Elevated levels of TCE exposure may increase the risk of certain types of cancers (kidney, possibly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and liver) over a lifetime.
While there is no conclusive evidence from epidemiologic studies that TCE exposure causes developmental effects in humans, animal studies show exposure to elevated levels of TCE may be associated with developmental effects such as increases in heart defects and effects on the developing immune system. Animal studies also indicate that TCE can cause thymus and kidney changes.
What does MDH do when there is concern about TCE exposure?
Concentrations of TCE that are typically encountered in outdoor air are very low. The State of Minnesota and its partners work to prevent exposures at levels that might cause illness.
As a part of that effort, MDH develops and publishes Health-Based Values (HBVs) — concentration of a chemical that is likely to pose little or no risk to human health. These HBVs are developed by MDH using available toxicity guidance from the body of available scientific evidence. They are intentionally very protective and can be used to set limits on facility emissions to protect the surrounding community. The HBVs are also much lower than the occupational standards for workplaces where the chemicals are used.
Because of the potential for health effects, MDH often recommends quick action to reduce or eliminate potential TCE exposures to pregnant women and young children when exposures above the HBV are occurring.
How significant were the exposures in the affected community?
While levels of TCE in the air near the facility appear to have been higher than the MDH HBVs, perhaps over several years, the HBVs incorporate multiple safety factors intended to protect against human health impacts. The HBVs are based on the assumption that one is breathing the air 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for up to a lifetime. Actual exposures tend to be less due to the mobility of the population and changes in weather/wind direction.
What do the exposures mean for people who live near the facility?
The level of exposure to TCE in the community is not expected to present any immediate health risk. However, people with concerns about long-term health impacts may wish to discuss the issue with their health-care providers. What about workers at the facility? Exposures for workers inside the facility may not have been the same as for people who lived in the area. Workplace safety is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and workers at the facility who have concerns are encouraged to contact OSHA at 651-284-5050 or www.dli.mn.gov/about-department/our-areas-service/minnesota-osha-compliance.
What should I do if I believe I or my family was exposed?
MDH has provided information about this issue to doctors, clinics, and other health care providers in the area. If you are concerned that you or a family member may have health effects as a result of TCE exposure, please contact your health care provider to discuss your concerns.
How can I find out more about this situation?
MDH and MPCA will post the latest information about this situation on their websites:
- MDH: Trichloroethylene (TCE) and Your Health
- MPCA: Water Gremlin: trichloroethylene (TCE) area of concern
MPCA and MDH will offer periodic updates via email subscription. To subscribe, visit https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/MNPCA/subscriber/new?topic_id=MNPCA_357.
You can also contact the MPCA or MDH at 651-201-4897 (leave a message for a call-back) or firstname.lastname@example.org.