February 4th, 2012
10:12 AM ET
Trichloroethene (TCE) has become a chemical of interest after environmental activist Erin Brockovich suggested that the derailment of a train carrying chemicals 41 years ago could be involved in the mysterious illness striking 16 people, mostly high school students in New York.
Brockovich’s team was dispatched to the Le Roy Junior/Senior High School, in Le Roy, New York, this week to collect water and soil samples. The school is more than three miles from the train wreck site, but some worry that the school was built in 2006 with contaminated supplies. The school district has called the speculation a “distraction” and a “publicity stunt.”
The New York State Department of Health, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency have been involved. But the agencies have not found an environmental or infectious cause, according to a school district statement. TCE was one of 58 different chemicals and 63 pesticides tested for; the results showed nothing out of the ordinary, according to the state’s health department.
The National Institutes of Health has offered the students free evaluations of their cases for possible involvement in clinical studies it is doing on conversion disorder.
Why is there speculation about TCE?
The theory about the environmental connection surfaced after one of the families affected by the mysterious ticking received an anonymous note in their mailbox about a train derailment in 1970, Brockovich told Dr. Drew Pinsky on his HLN show. That note suggested that contaminated rocks and soil were used to build the school.
The site of the train derailment in Le Roy is on the Superfund National Priorities List. A Superfund site means that it’s a hazardous waste site that is placed on the EPA’s list to assess health impact.
In the accident in 1970, a Lehigh Valley Railroad train spilled one ton of cyanide crystals and around 30,000 gallons of trichloroethene onto the ground, according to the EPA Superfund site.
TCE has been found in at least 761 of the 1,430 Superfund sites in the country.
What is TCE?
TCE, a watery chemical that smells like chloroform, has been used as an industrial solvent for cleaning metal parts, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It is also used to make other chemicals such as cleaner, paint stripper and adhesives. It was once used as anesthesia, until its use was banned in the 1970s.
How long can TCE stick around?
It is a potentially harmful contaminant that can easily evaporate into the air. Its half-life in the air is about seven days.
It is not a persistent chemical in the atmosphere.
But TCE is not very soluble in water and is detected in ground water. This could be a source of exposure. The New York health department tested for TCE and collected samples throughout the building. The tests found nothing out of the ordinary, according to the agency.
Is TCE exposure common?
Most people have traces of TCE in their bodies, because the chemical is in the water, soil, food and environment. It can even be found in breast milk, said Dr. Samuel Goldman, an associate professor at the Parkinson's Institute and Clinical Center.
“You can detect it in humans,” he said. “Its half-life in humans is short. You could detect it in blood and metabolites in urine.”
The chemical is usually expelled from the human body quickly.
“TCE is rapidly cleared from the body, and these nervous system effects subside as soon as the TCE level in the body decreases,” said Dr. LuAnn White, director of the Tulane Center for Applied Environmental Public Health Sciences.
What are the known health effects of TCE?
As is the case with most solvents at high doses, acute exposure to TCE can cause effects on the nervous system such as dizziness, headache, nausea, confusion, lack of coordination and drunk-like sensations, according to the EPA.
Drinking or breathing high levels of trichloroethylene could cause nervous system effects, liver and lung damage, abnormal heartbeat, coma and possibly death.
Goldman, who published a small study about TCE and its possible link to Parkinson’s disease, said he received e-mails from people living nearby Le Roy who have concerns about TCE.
“I am not aware of any literature on TCE that would link it to those symptoms,” Goldman said about the uncontrollable movements and verbal outbursts among the 16 people in New York. “But what I told them was if they were very concerned about the effects of this spill that occurred 40 years ago, they should check their water supply for TCE.”
Chronic exposure to TCE could cause kidney cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“The work looking at neurological effects of chronic exposure is very little,” Goldman said.
CNN's senior medical producer Danielle Dellorto contributed to this report.
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