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EPA aims to ban a cancer-causing chemical found in Franklin, Martinsville and other sites

A map of contaminated groundwater in Martinsville, 2021. The EPA suspects the PCE and TCE pollution mostly came from a local laundry and dry cleaning business in the 1980s.
Courtesy of EPA Region 5
A map of contaminated groundwater in Martinsville, 2021. The blue indicates where the highest concentrations of PCE and TCE were found. The EPA suspects the water pollution mostly came from a local laundry and dry cleaning business in the 1980s.

One of the chemicals thought to be responsible for rare cancers in Franklin and Martinsville could get banned in most settings. The Environmental Protection Agency wants to phase out the use of PCE — a chemical used in dry cleaning, products like brake cleaners and brake pad glue, and some industrial processes.

Exposure to the chemical can damage the nervous system and cause cancer over time. Chris Nidel is a chemical engineer and an environmental attorney who represents some Franklin residents.

He said pollution from PCE has been widespread — especially when thinking about something like dry cleaning that’s often closer to residential areas.

“You have dry cleaners that are in apartment buildings, you have workplace exposures for the dry cleaners themselves — which which don't feel necessarily like an industrial setting that we might think of where we're getting exposed to chemicals that can cause cancer. And again, you have people that are exposed with their dry cleaning when they take it home and they put it in a closet and that the chemicals can concentrate in the air inside the home," Nidel said.

PCE has been found at more than 20 Superfund sites in Indiana on the EPA’s national priorities list.

READ MORE: EPA announces cleanup plan for polluted water, soil in Martinsville

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Nidel said PCE was actually created to be a safer alternative to another cancer-causing chemical, TCE. He said such alternatives are often chemically similar to what they're meant to replace and can cause the same health problems. But Nidel said industry doesn’t have to prove that these alternatives are safe — only that there’s a lack of evidence to show harm.

“And then it takes 20, 30, 40, 50 years for the evidence of its harm to develop, which all of that evidence of harm means that people have suffered and died as a result of the use of those chemicals without the information," he said.

The EPA has proposed a rule to phase out most uses of PCE in two years and ban it in dry cleaning in the next decade.

Tom Wallace is the founder and director of the Martinsville Indiana Superfund Site Association — which looks at environmental concerns in Martinsville and communities across the state.

He said the rule would be a step in the right direction in terms of making people more aware of the harms PCE can cause. But Wallace said as it stands now, it wouldn’t go far enough.

The EPA would still allow PCE to be used in some industrial processes — which the agency said make up 80 percent of how the chemical is used today.

And though the EPA said industrial companies would have to follow strict rules to prevent workers from breathing in the chemical or getting it on their skin — that’s not something the EPA can control. Wallace said that’s handled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — so there’s currently nothing to enforce those requirements.

More importantly, the rule would do little for communities like Martinsville that are already suffering from the health effects of PCE. Wallace said the rule doesn’t set any additional limits for PCE in the air or the water.

“The best thing that could happen is if it was fully classified as a carcinogen — which it doesn't state that in there,” he said.

The public has about 60 days to comment on the proposed rule.

The EPA was poised to ban some uses of TCE as well, but that effort was stalled during the Trump administration.

This story has been updated.

Rebecca is our energy and environment reporter. Contact her at or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Rebecca Thiele covers statewide environment and energy issues.