Solving the Solvent Problem: Part 1 of a 2-Part Series

by Walter Mugdan

If you’re like me, you’re interested in the etymology of words.  My job at the U.S. EPA involves cleaning up toxic waste sites.  Lots of the words used in my business are scientific and derive from Latin or Greek (neither of which I studied in school).

The chemistry term “solvent” comes from the Latin solvere, meaning to loosen or untie.  The same Latin root gives us other words – words that have both scientific and common meanings.  We solve problems, both mathematical and human … or at least we search for the solutions to those problems, assuming optimistically that they are in fact soluble.  The Declaration of Independence explains why we chose to dissolve the political bands which tied us to England.

In the scientific context, a solvent is a substance (typically a liquid, but not necessarily) that dissolves another substance, called a solute; the result is called a solution.  Life as we know it would not exist if nature had not made possible this chemistry trick.  The most common solvent on earth is water.  The world’s oceans, from which life arose, constitute a solution with thousands of solutes, many of them essential to life.  The most obvious is sodium chloride – salt – the primary ingredient of salt water.  More mundane water solutions are all around us, including virtually any flavored drink from coffee to lemonade to Gatorade to whiskey.

Today there are a zillion other solvents out there, and they are used in nearly every industry from the simplest to the most complex.  Some, like turpentine (distilled from the sap of pine trees) have been in use since ancient times.  But most have been concocted in the 250 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution.  From paint thinners to cleaning agents to manufacturing intermediates, solvents are ubiquitous in the industrial world.

Why is this relevant in an environmental blog?  And why does the title of this blog suggest that there is a solvent problem to which we need a solution?  Here’s why: like everything else in the industrial world, the use of solvents creates wastes; and until pretty recently those wastes have been poured, leaked, spilled, pumped and dumped onto the ground and into the water.  What’s more, nearly all of these solvents are bad for you, some extremely so.

Two of the most common are trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene, PCE or “perc.”  TCE is used in a wide variety of industries, from extraction of vegetable oils to medical anesthesia, but it is most commonly used as a degreaser and cleaner for metals and electronics.  TCE was almost certainly used in making every iPod or iPhone or iPad you own (or covet).

Perc is most commonly used as dry cleaning fluid — it’s what provides that distinctive smell when you bring your clothes home from the cleaner.

Both TCE and perc are probable human carcinogens, and one or both are found well over half of the sites on the U.S. EPA’s Superfund list of the worst toxic waste sites in the country.   That list is littered with former dry cleaning establishments, many of which simply poured their used perc into the ground.   Here in the Big Apple there are literally hundreds of dry cleaners.  While most of them have not contaminated the soil and groundwater, if you’re reading this blog you’re probably not too far from a site where a dry cleaner has done just that.

Watch for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll consider how we can solve the solvents problem.

About the Author: Since 2008 Walter has served as Superfund director for U.S. EPA Region 2, managing the region’s toxic waste cleanup, emergency response and brownfields programs.  For the previous six years he was director of the region’s air, water, hazardous waste and environmental review programs.  He joined Region 2 in 1975 as a staff attorney doing air pollution enforcement work.  From 1991 to 2002 he held various supervisory positions in the region’s legal office, culminating as Regional Counsel.  In his private life he heads a small, local conservation group in northeast Queens.  He enjoys bicycling, kayaking and hiking; and since 2010 he has been moonlighting as an Executive Producer (read: source of funding) for his daughter’s nascent career as an independent film maker.

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