Insurance Archaeology

The Impact of PCE Contamination for Businesses and the Environment

Ben Pariser


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Perchloroethylene (PCE) is a chlorinated solvent used for its effective degreasing properties. While it has been instrumental in the operations of dry cleaners, manufacturing plants, and numerous other sectors, its misuse or improper disposal poses significant threats to the environment and, consequently, to the businesses that rely on it. The challenge of PCE contamination is not limited to its immediate health risks to humans and wildlife or its capacity to degrade natural habitats. The repercussions extend into the legal and financial arenas, where businesses found responsible for contamination can face stringent regulatory actions, hefty fines, and long-lasting damage to their reputation.

This article highlights the critical aspects of PCE contamination—from understanding PCE and its various applications to the mechanisms of environmental contamination and the ensuing consequences. Moreover, it will explore innovative solutions and practices for remediation, underscoring the pivotal role that insurance archaeologists play in enabling businesses to navigate the financial complexities of clean-up.  

What is Perchloroethylene (PCE), and Where Is It Used?

Perchloroethylene (PCE), or tetrachloroethylene, is a volatile organic compound widely used in industrial and commercial applications for its effective degreasing and solvent properties. Chemically, PCE is a colorless chlorinated hydrocarbon with a distinctive, ether-like odor. Different types of PCE chemicals are categorized based on their purity levels, and stabilizers are added to prevent degradation and reaction with air or moisture. The primary forms include:

  • Technical-grade PCE contains a mix of PCE with other stabilizers to enhance its efficacy and reduce the risk of fire and is commonly used in the dry-cleaning industry.
  • Virgin PCE has a higher purity level typically used in critical applications where contamination control is a top priority, such as vapor degreasing in aerospace and precision manufacturing.
  • Recycled PCE is created from recycling spent solvents to reduce waste and promote sustainability in industries that rely heavily on chlorinated solvents. It can also be used in applications where slightly lower purity levels are tolerable. 

Industries That Frequently Use PCE

The versatility and efficacy of Perchloroethylene (PCE) as a solvent have made it a staple in several industries. Here are the primary industries and applications where PCE is most commonly used:

  • Dry Cleaning: The most well-known use of PCE is in the dry-cleaning industry, where it dissolves greases, oils, and waxes without damaging fabrics. Even though there has been a shift towards more sustainable alternatives, many dry cleaners still rely on PCE for its effectiveness and cost-efficiency.
  • Metal Degreasing: PCE is used in manufacturing, particularly the automotive and aerospace sectors,  for vapor degreasing and removing machining oils and lubricants from metal parts before painting, welding, or assembling to ensure product quality and longevity.
  • Chemical Manufacturing: PCE serves as a raw material or intermediate in other chemicals, including fluorinated compounds used in refrigerants and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).
  • Textile Processing: In addition to dry cleaning, textile manufacturers use PCE to process and finish fabrics, remove impurities, and prepare them for additional treatments.
  • Electronics Industry: PCE is an ideal choice for the precision required in cleaning electronic components and removing contaminants that interfere with electrical conductivity and performance.

How PCE Contaminates Enter the Environment

PCE contamination occurs primarily through improper handling, disposal, and storage practices. Given its widespread use across various industries, PCE enters and affects the environment in numerous ways.

  • Leakage and Spills: PCE can be introduced into the soil through storage containers, machinery, and waste disposal systems, which may percolate and contaminate groundwater. 
  • Vapor Emission: PCE is volatile and can quickly evaporate and enter the atmosphere. Once airborne, PCE poses inhalation risks to humans, contributes to air pollution, and can redeposit and contaminate other areas far from the original source.
  • Improper Waste Disposal: PCE-contaminated waste, including PCE-laden fabrics, sludge from solvent recovery units, and other contaminated materials, disposed of without appropriate treatment in landfills not equipped to handle hazardous waste, allows PCE to leach into the soil and groundwater.
  • Sewer and Drain Disposal: Some facilities may illegally or ignorantly dispose of PCE down drains or sewers, assuming it will be treated or diluted. This can contaminate wastewater treatment systems, affect aquatic life, and pollute rivers, lakes, and oceans.

The Environmental and Health Consequences of PCE Contamination

Despite its utility, PCE’s chemical stability and solubility mean that it can persist in the environment for long periods, posing risks of soil, water, and air contamination. Understanding these risks and the nature of PCE is the first step for businesses in mitigating potential impacts on their operations and the environment.

Soil Contamination

PCE contamination can inhibit plant growth and harm soil microorganisms essential for nutrient cycling. Over time, contaminated soil can become barren and lose fertility and biodiversity.

Water Contamination

PCE is particularly concerning when it contaminates groundwater, the source of drinking water for many communities. It can also accumulate in surface water bodies, harming fish, amphibians, and other wildlife and affect aquatic ecosystems.

Air Contamination

PCE volatilization into the air contributes to air pollution. It can have broader environmental and health effects, including contributing to the formation of ground-level ozone, a harmful air pollutant, and the unintentional inhalation of PCE vapors by humans and other animals.

Health Risks

Exposure to PCE can occur through inhalation, ingesting contaminated water, or skin contact. Health risks associated with PCE exposure include

  • Neurological effects, such as dizziness, headaches, and memory loss.
  • Respiratory issues, including lung irritation and difficulty breathing.
  • Long-term exposure has been linked to more severe conditions, such as kidney and liver damage, reproductive effects, and an increased risk of certain types of cancer.

Legal, Regulatory, and Economic Consequences of PCE Contamination

Perchloroethylene (PCE) contamination challenges extend across economic, legal, and regulatory landscapes and can significantly affect businesses responsible for contamination. Addressing these consequences requires businesses to engage proactively, adhering strictly to regulatory guidelines, considering safer alternatives to PCE, and actively participating in environmental clean-up efforts.

Legal and Regulatory Consequences

The EPA enforces several acts to govern PCE usage and disposal, aiming to safeguard air and water quality, including the Clean Air Act (CAA), Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Additionally, due to its toxic classification, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) mandates additional reporting, record-keeping, and testing requirements for PCE use.

Additional oversight can come from state and municipal levels, where regulations may be stricter, focusing on local environmental and public health priorities through enhanced emission controls, disposal protocols, and clean-up. Consequences for violating these requirements and regulations include

  • Fines and Penalties: Businesses face significant fines and penalties for non-compliance with PCE-related regulations. This extends beyond contamination incidents to reporting inaccuracies, safety practice lapses, and permit violations.
  • Clean-up Orders: Regulatory bodies may issue clean-up orders mandating responsible businesses to manage and finance remediation activities. Non-compliance can escalate to further legal challenges and penalties.
  • Civil Lawsuits: The specter of civil litigation looms large, with potential lawsuits from governmental bodies seeking clean-up cost recovery and private parties seeking damages for health impacts or property value losses due to PCE contamination.

Economic Consequences for Businesses

Each of the consequences above is accompanied by significant economic consequences for businesses facing PCE contamination, including

  • Clean-up Costs: The financial burden of remediation can be substantial. Businesses may face extensive expenses for soil excavation, water treatment, and long-term environmental monitoring to mitigate the effects of PCE contamination.
  • Regulatory Fines and Legal Actions: Violations of environmental regulations about PCE handling, use, and disposal can attract hefty fines. Further, legal actions initiated by affected communities or individuals may culminate in significant settlement costs.
  • Reputation Damage: Public awareness and concern over a company’s role in environmental contamination can severely damage its reputation, leading to lost trust, decreased customer base, and impact on sales and viability.
  • Operational Disruptions: Compliance requirements, including clean-up mandates, may necessitate operational halts or slowdowns, leading to financial losses and possible workforce reductions.

Resolving PCE Contamination with Environmental Remediation

Remediating PCE contamination is a critical process that requires a detailed understanding of the contaminant’s behavior in the environment and the most effective removal or neutralization techniques. The choice of environmental remediation strategy depends on several factors, including the extent of contamination, the affected media, and the site’s specific characteristics. 

Site assessments and expert analysis inform the selection of a remediation method to ensure the effective and sustainable removal of PCE contamination. Each remediation strategy has its own set of challenges and considerations, including cost, timeframes, and environmental impact.

Soil Vapor Extraction (SVE)

Soil Vapor Extraction is a widely used technique for removing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like PCE from the soil. The process involves inserting vacuum pumps into the ground to extract contaminated vapors from the soil’s pores. The extracted vapors are then treated using activated carbon filters or thermal oxidizers to remove the contaminants before the clean air is released into the atmosphere.

Pump and Treat

The Pump and Treat method is primarily used for pumping contaminated groundwater to the surface, where it is treated to remove PCE and other pollutants. Treatment options include air stripping, where water is exposed to air, allowing the volatile PCE to evaporate and be captured or treated, and activated carbon filtration, which adsorbs PCE from the water. The cleaned water is then re-injected into the groundwater system or discharged.

In Situ Bioremediation

In Situ Bioremediation leverages natural or enhanced microbial processes to break down contaminants within the soil or groundwater. For PCE, this often involves specific strains of bacteria that can degrade PCE and turn it into less harmful substances. Enhancements such as adding nutrients or electron donors can accelerate the degradation process. This method is praised for its environmental friendliness and effectiveness in reducing PCE to non-toxic compounds.

Thermal Desorption

Thermal Desorption involves heating contaminated soil to a temperature high enough to vaporize PCE and other organic compounds. The vapors are then collected and treated, typically through condensation or filtration. This method can be applied in situ, where the soil is heated directly underground, or ex-situ, where contaminated soil is excavated and treated in a specialized facility. 

Role of Insurance Archaeologists in PCE Contamination Clean-up

Insurance archaeologists offer a unique and critical service that can significantly alleviate the financial burden of PCE remediation efforts, especially for businesses facing PCE contamination that occurred in the past. We specialize in identifying, locating, and utilizing historical insurance policies that companies may have held in the past, which can be applied to cover the costs associated with environmental clean-ups.

Identification and Recovery of Historical Insurance Assets

The first step involves a detailed investigation into the company’s history and any insurance policies that were in effect when the PCE contamination occurred. These can include general liability policies, property insurance, and specialized environmental policies. Insurance archaeologists use various methods to uncover these documents, including digging through company archives, contacting insurance brokers and companies, and interviewing former employees.

Analysis and Activation of Policies

Once potential policies are identified, insurance archaeologists analyze the coverage to determine if and how it can be applied to recover environmental clean-up costs. This involves a thorough understanding of insurance law, policy language, and the specific circumstances of the contamination. If applicable coverage is found, the archaeologist then works on behalf of the business to activate these policies, which often involves negotiations with insurance carriers and potentially advising the client’s legal team.

Benefits to Businesses

The benefits of engaging an insurance archaeologist in the process of PCE contamination clean-up are substantial:

  • Financial Relief: The most immediate benefit is the potential for significant financial relief. Clean-up of contaminated sites, especially those involving hazardous substances like PCE, can be exceedingly expensive. Historical insurance policies can cover a considerable portion, if not all, of these costs.
  • Legal and Negotiation Support: Insurance archaeologists often possess legal expertise or work closely with environmental law specialists, providing businesses with crucial support in navigating the claims process, including negotiations.
  • Strategic Planning: Understanding the potential for insurance recovery early in the clean-up process can inform coverage strategies focused on remediation approaches, timelines, and budgeting, enabling more efficient and effective environmental management.

Don’t Allow PCE Contamination to Hurt the Future of Your Business 

The issue of Perchloroethylene (PCE) contamination presents a complex challenge for businesses, environmental regulators, and communities. For business owners, the path forward involves a combination of diligent regulatory compliance, adoption of safer alternatives where possible, and engagement in remediation efforts when contamination is identified. However, the costs associated with these efforts can be significant, posing a substantial burden. Here, the role of insurance archaeologists emerges as a critical component of the solution. By uncovering and activating historical insurance policies, these specialists offer a lifeline, enabling businesses to navigate the financial challenges of environmental clean-up.

We are not attorneys, this is not legal advice. 

Ben Pariser

One of Ben’s favorite parts of insurance archeology is knowing Restorical is making a difference, helping to clean up the environment one polluted property at a time while also changing people’s lives.


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