The large-scale manufacture, use, and disposal of chlorinated volatile organic compounds (CVOCs) such as tetrachloroethene (PCE), trichloroethene (TCE), 1,1,1-trichloroethane (TCA), and carbon tetrachloride (CTC) began in the first half of the last century and essentially ended in the 1990s. Between 1970 and 1976, the U.S. produced and consumed more than 6 billion pounds of CTC (over 450 million gallons) alone. The production of TCE, the most infamous of these compounds today, peaked in 1970 at 600 million pounds (nearly 47 million gallons). How did this love affair with CVOCs begin, why did it end so abruptly, and what happened to all of these materials? Let’s follow the process from production, to use, to disposal.
Production of CVOCs started on an industrial scale at the beginning of World War II as petroleum was diverted to the war effort. CVOCs were relatively easy to produce and had a variety of desirable properties that made them on par with, or an improvement over, petroleum-based liquids. Most notably, they are nonflammable. At the close of World War II, the United States was the only industrialized nation standing, and took on the role of rebuilding the world. CVOC production soared and their use crept into nearly every corner of the economy. This was the Golden Age of CVOCs. However, as it became apparent that these compounds were affecting the atmosphere in a number of ways (ozone depletion and the generation of SMOG), their production fell sharply following the passage of amendments to the Clean Air Act.
During the Golden Age, CVOCs found their way into almost every market. The most obvious uses were for the cleaning of metal parts prior to painting or plating, and as a solvent in the commercial dry cleaning business. However, they were also used extensively in the cleaning of electronic components, as grain elevator fumigants, in fire extinguishers, as a key component in the production of paints, in the automotive repairs business, as anesthetics in the medical field, and as key elements in many consumer products such as household cleaners, spot removers, cosmetics, glues, adhesives, candles, etc. Bottles and cans of pure CVOCs were available for purchase at nearly every hardware store and pharmacy. If you can imagine a product or process from the Golden Age, it is likely CVOCs were there. For instance, a significant amount of CTC was used to increase the density of the wax used in Lava Lamps. Groovy!
So where did all of the used CVOCs go? Some, undoubtedly, volatilized into the atmosphere. However, most of it did not. Because of the relatively low cost and ease of production, there were no economic pressures to reclaim or recycle CVOCs after their use. So what did people at the time do when faced with a nearly endless supply of CVOCs and a lack of recycling and reclaiming opportunities? They did what they were told to according to guidance and standards of the time – pour it on the ground, or send it to a local landfill. A robust recycling and reclamation market didn’t begin until the passage of environmental regulations. By this time, however, the damage had been done.
Understanding the production, use and disposal patterns of these CVOCs can provide new insight and improve your understanding of where and when releases likely occurred, and why there are so many CVOC-affected sites out there. The problem faced by environmental professionals today is that there are fewer and fewer people left that have first-hand knowledge of a site’s CVOC use and disposal practices. The best place to start is to look for the back door of the facility in the 1960s, 70’s and 80s and conduct very comprehensive assessments.
Published in Cox-Colvin’s October 2018 Focus on the Environment newsletter.
Craig Cox is a principal and co-founder of Cox-Colvin & Associates, Inc., and holds degrees in geology and mineralogy from the Ohio State University and hydrogeology from the Colorado School of Mines. Mr. Cox has over 30 years of experience managing large environmental project implemented under CERCLA and state voluntary action programs. Mr. Cox is the inventor of the Vapor Pin® and has developed a variety of software products including Data Inspector, an internet-enabled environmental database application. Mr. Cox is a Certified Professional Geologist (CPG) with AIPG and is a Certified Professional (CP) under Ohio EPA's Voluntary Action Program.