Monday, August 26, 2019

TCE and Brookhaven National Lab

Interesting story in the New York Times on the use of TCE as a degreaser, and its potential effects:
UPTON, N.Y. — As a technician at Brookhaven National Laboratory, one of the nation’s most prestigious science labs, Joseph Marino’s job in the late 1990s and early 2000s was to clean and maintain the supercomputers that have helped researchers unlock some of the world’s biggest scientific and medical mysteries. He polished copper connectors, he said, until “they reminded you of gold.” 
One of the cleaning fluids he used while wiping the machines by hand over the years was trichloroethylene, or TCE, a toxic degreaser that the Trump administration has targeted as part of its broad effort to weaken regulations on chemicals. TCE is still widely used by dry cleaners as a stain remover and by factories as a degreaser. 
Mr. Marino, who later lost a kidney to cancer, is now suing the operators of the Department of Energy lab for $25 million over exposure to TCE, alleging that they negligently supplied the cleaner to him and many other workers there without warnings or protections. He is also suing Dow Chemical and Zep, alleging that they made and sold the chemical without adequate safety warnings.
Here's a hair-raising tidbit (emphasis mine):
...At a recent meeting of a group of Brookhaven retirees, at a classic Long Island diner a 20-minute drive from the lab, the conversation was punctuated with news of former colleagues who were battling disease or who had died.
Around the table was Frank Devito, 84, in a faded Yankees cap, who worked at the lab for three decades, does dialysis three times a week for renal failure and keeps the group’s tally of deceased colleagues — 38 at the latest count. There was also Fred Squires, 67, who remembers scrubbing parts in a tray full of TCE, with rubber gloves and no mask, and who has kidney cancer.
The good ol' days, when PPE was scarce.*

*for the irony-impaired, this is sarcasm


  1. If you ever happen to read the solvents chapter of Cassarett and Doull's Toxicology, you may notice that half the solvents they talk about were used as degreasers at one time or another. Which makes you wonder about how this is done now... is this why there are enclosed parts washers for small parts? How do they handle big workpieces--Simple Green?

    1. One of my undergrad professors told me that when he started in the 1960s, it was common practice to use benzene to clean vacuum grease off of students' hands in teaching labs.

      Aqueous surfactant solutions like Simple Green are indeed used in parts washers when possible for safety reasons.

  2. Our environmental science department is in a renovated WWII-era quartz crystal factory with so much trichloroethylene in the ground that the entire building is kept under positive pressure to maintain air quality.

  3. Anyone analyze water samples for TCE using purge-and-trap GC with an electrolytic conductivity (Hall) detector?

    TCE exits the column and enters a reactor where gaseous HCl forms. The HCl passes into the conductivjty cell where it dissociates. The increase in conductivity is proportional to the TCE concentration in the sample.

    I initially used a Tekmar LSC-1 P&T unit that had a single sparger and was loaded with a 5-mL syringe.

  4. This is a good reminder that safety is ultimately a personal responsibility. Just because your boss asks/tells you to do something doesn't mean it is safe.

    I worked at an analytical lab that analyzed for Cr(VI). The last step of the analysis was extraction into dichloromethane followed by UV-Vis. The spectrometer was just on a benchtop. I asked my supervisor and HSE guy about this and they were unconcerned. I did some research and found that if you can smell DCM you are above the OSHA exposure threshold. I mentioned this in an email and the spectrometer was in a fume hood the next day. I now work for a company with an exemplary safety focus and appreciate it.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20