Before the advent of modern science, many industries were unaware of the toxic properties of certain chemicals used in everyday applications and how they could harm humans. The US military was no exception, especially those harmed by trichloroethylene exposure.
In the 1940s, the US military began using trichloroethylene (TCE) for vapor-degreasing tanks and aircraft parts. TCE is a powerful cleaning solvent that proved a valuable national security resource for the Air Force. During that time, scientists knew that TCE could be poisonous but were unaware of its carcinogenic properties.
As a result, countless service members exposed to TCE may have an increased risk of developing severe diseases, including cancers (primarily in the liver, kidneys, cervix, and lymphatic system) and Parkinson’s disease.
What is Trichloroethylene (TCE)?
Trichloroethylene (TCE) is a volatile, colorless, liquid non-flammable halocarbon created through chemical synthesis. It is primarily used in vapor degreasing metal equipment, adhesive bonding, refrigerants, household cleaning products (e.g., cleaning wipes, aerosol sprays, dry cleaning products, etc.), and anticorrosive paint for Navy vessels.
Trichloroethylene was also used as a surgical anesthetic and an inhaled analgesic before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned such uses in 1977.
Today, this non-flammable halocarbon is still being used as a cleaning solvent. However, the Department of Defense (DOD) has set trichloroethylene exposure limits for workers to prevent hazardous effects.
How Does Trichloroethylene Exposure Occur?
When spilled on the ground, TCE can soak through the soil and enter groundwater, polluting drinking water wells. It can also move through the soil and into bodies of water, such as rivers and lakes. Moreover, TCE can evaporate from contaminated soil and rise to the ground.
The general population could be harmed by trichloroethylene (TCE) exposure via:
- Inhaling indoor or outdoor air
- Drinking contaminated water
- Eating food processed or washed with contaminated water
- Absorbing it through the skin
Consequences of Trichloroethylene Exposure
Acute trichloroethylene exposure can affect the organs related to breathing and digestion. Chronic trichloroethylene exposure, on the other hand, can result in severe health conditions, such as:
Central Nervous System Depression
Central nervous system depression occurs when the body’s normal neurological processes slow down. Severe symptoms from trichloroethylene exposure include the following:
- Reduced heart rate
- Memory loss
- Irritability and aggression
- Facial numbness
- Clammy or cold skin
- Blue lips or fingertips
- Low breathing rate
- Nausea and vomiting
Intermediate trichloroethylene exposure may lead to dizziness, sleepiness, nausea, confusion, short-term memory loss, facial numbness, and blurred vision.
Long-term effects on the central nervous system may mimic heavy alcohol use, including short-term memory loss, blurred vision, lack of coordination, muscle weakness, and slurred speech.
Can Exposure to Trichloroethylene Cause Cancer?
Research shows that chronic trichloroethylene exposure increases the risk of certain cancers, primarily:
- Kidney cancer
- Liver cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
At least one study shows one positive finding for TCE-related prostate cancer.
The effects of trichloroethylene on the lungs remain unclear. Limited data support the link between trichloroethylene and respiratory tract disorders (e.g., asthma, rhinitis, chronic bronchitis) and lung cancer. So far, the most consistent data is the association of trichloroethylene and systemic sclerosis and pulmonary veno-occlusive disease.
How trichloroethylene affects the endocrine systems is also inconclusive. A 2018 study found that TCE poses a risk for endocrine disruption, which could have significant implications for human health and the environment. However, the exact effects on the human body are uncertain.
TCE Exposure in the US Military
Service members were exposed to trichloroethylene (TCE) through daily tasks, and because the military used it so frequently, TCE eventually made its way to the soil and groundwater. Over a hundred Department of Defense (DOD) bases are contaminated with TCE today.
Certain positions in the military suffered frequent trichloroethylene exposure and other toxic chemicals, including:
- Computer specialists
- Weapon specialists
- Jet engine mechanics
- Radar technicians
- Systems technicians
- Corrosive control technicians
- Communications equipment repairman
- Missile techs
- Aircraft structural mechanics
- Avionics technicians
- Civilian family members
Aside from military personnel, people living near polluted bases were also exposed to this carcinogenic substance through air and water contamination.
Camp Lejeune Water Contamination
Camp Lejeune is one of the worst cases of water contamination in US history. Aside from trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), benzene, vinyl chloride, and other chemicals were found in the base’s drinking water.
Records show that the contamination was caused by improper camp and nearby dry cleaning business disposal.
Nearly a million personnel and family members were exposed to these carcinogens, resulting in severe illnesses many years later, including cancer. Veterans who developed cancer due to toxin exposure can now seek compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
VA Disability Benefits for Military Personnel Harmbed by Trichloroethylene Exposure
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides disability benefits to veterans, reservists, and guardsmen who have developed certain conditions during active duty, including those caused by TCE. VA disability benefits include medical care and a monthly, tax-free payment ranging from $133 to $3,400.
To receive these VA benefits, a veteran must meet the following criteria:
- Have a diagnosed illness or other condition caused by exposure to a particular toxic hazard in the air, soil, or water
- Have served on active duty in a location that exposed you to the toxic hazard
- Did not receive a dishonorable discharge
Presumptive Conditions: What Are the Long-Term Effects of Trichloroethylene Exposure?
To qualify for benefits, a veteran must establish a service connection to show that their condition was caused by a hazardous condition they experienced while on active duty.
Veterans, reservists, and guardsmen do not have to prove service connection for the following presumptive diseases caused by dangerous substances:
- Brain cancer
- Gastrointestinal cancers
- Head cancers
- Kidney cancer
- Lymphatic cancers
- Lymphoma of any type
- Neck cancers
- Pancreatic cancer
- Reproductive cancers
- Respiratory cancers
- Asthma diagnosed after service
- Chronic bronchitis
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Chronic rhinitis
- Chronic sinusitis
- Constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis
- Granulomatous disease
- Interstitial lung disease (ILD)
- Pulmonary fibrosis
“A presumptive condition” is an illness the VA presumes is caused by military duty due to the unique circumstances of a specific veteran’s employment.
When applying for compensation, veterans and other claimants must present the following requirements:
- Evidence of a current physical or mental disability that makes one less able or unable to do everyday tasks, e.g., medical records
- Record of an event, injury, or illness that occurred during service and caused the disability
- Proof of a link between the indicated condition and the event, injury, or disease that caused it
- DD124 or other separation documents
Family members that lived on hazardous sites with personnel may also be able to file a claim with the VA to obtain health care benefits.
Other Hazardous Materials
Aside from trichloroethylene, the VA provides benefits to veterans who were affected by:
- Agent Orange
- Mustard gas or lewisite
- Gulf War illnesses
- Toxic water at Camp Lejeune
- Project 112/SHAD
Trichloroethylene (TCE) is a powerful substance used for many applications, such as adhesive bonding, dry cleaning, degreasing, creating anticorrosive paint for Navy vessels, and much more. Despite its wide range of uses, however, trichloroethylene has numerous hazardous effects on the body, including the endocrine systems, lungs, and organs related to digestion.
Many veterans exposed to this carcinogenic substance developed severe diseases later in life. Fortunately, they can receive compensation from the VA, including medical care and monthly payments, by applying for a disability claim.
If you have more questions, most law offices offer a free case evaluation to hear about your situation. During your free case evaluation, you may have to sign some paperwork to establish an attorney-client relationship, but you will be able to get complicated or confusing questions answered.