Cleaning Up Organic Pollutants Using Nanotechnology

Trichloroethene or TCE is one of the most common and poisonous organic pollutants in U.S. groundwater and one of the nation's most pervasive and troublesome groundwater pollutants. TCE is an industrial solvent used primarily in metal degreasing and cleaning operations.

TCE is found at 60 percent of the contaminated waste sites on the Superfund National Priorities List, and it is considered one of the most hazardous chemicals at these sites because of its prevalence and its toxicity. Superfund is the common name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980. This is a federal law whose mission is to clean up the worst hazardous and toxic waste site areas on land and water. These sites constitute threats to human health and the environment.

TCE, as a volatile organic compound (VOC), has a tendency to volatilize or escape from groundwater into the air. When this process of volatilization happens in groundwater beneath a building, the TCE can enter the building as a vapor, which can produce an air quality or inhalation hazard to people within the building.

TCE can be absorbed through the lungs, mucous membranes, gastrointestinal tract, and the skin. Exposure to TCE happens mostly from breathing contaminated air and drinking contaminated water. Short-term exposure to high levels of this chemical can result in toxic effects on a number of organs and systems, including the liver, kidney, blood, skin, immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and cardiovascular system. In humans, acute inhalation exposure to TCE causes central nervous system symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea, and unconsciousness. TCE has been linked to liver damage, impaired pregnancies, and cancer.

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