ROCHESTER, N.Y. — A common dry cleaning chemical could cause Parkinson’s disease, a new study warns. Seven high profile individuals — including a former basketball star, a Navy captain, and a late U.S. Senator — developed the disease after exposure, according to researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center.
The industrial solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) was once an ingredient in the process that decaffeinated coffee. However, officials banned it from use by the food and pharmaceutical industries in the 1970s.
Despite that, it was still a component in some household products, such as cleaning wipes, aerosol cleaning products, tool cleaners, paint removers, spray adhesives, carpet cleaners, and spot removers. In the United Kingdom, dry cleaners stopped using it in the mid 1950s, but according to Public Health England it’s still an ingredient in metal cleaning and degreasing products and an extraction solvent in the textile manufacturing industry.
“For more than a century, TCE has threatened workers, polluted the air we breathe—outside and inside—and contaminated the water we drink. Global use is waxing, not waning,” the study authors write in a university release.
A global study in 2013 found TCE increased the risk of developing the neurological condition six-fold. TCE continues to act as a degreasing agent. Dr. Dorsey and the team say the toxic chemical may be fueling rising numbers of cases of Parkinson’s disease across the world.
About one million people in the U.S. currently suffer from the condition. Doctors diagnose 60,000 Americans each year.
Several cases trace back to one U.S. military base
Brian Grant, who played for 12 years in the NBA, was diagnosed at the age of 36. Study authors say he was was likely exposed to TCE when he was just three years-old. His father, a U.S. Marine, was stationed at Camp Lejeune — where TCE has been found contaminating the military base.
Amy Lindberg was similarly exposed there while serving as a U.S. Navy captain. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 30 years later. The study details others whose exposure was the result of living close to a contaminated site or working with the chemical directly.
They include the late U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, who stepped down from office after his diagnosis in 2015. Fifty years earlier, he served in the Georgia Air National Guard, which used TCE to degrease airplanes.
Some states are banning TCE’s use
The U.S. alone is home to thousands of contaminated sites. Researchers say the country needs to speed up cleaning and containment efforts. They argue that more research is necessary to better understand how TCE contributes to Parkinson’s and other diseases.
TCE levels in groundwater, drinking water, soil, and outdoor and indoor air require closer monitoring and this information needs to be shared with those who live and work near polluted sites. In addition, the team is calling for finally ending the use of these chemicals.
Two states, Minnesota and New York, have banned TCE, but the federal government has not, despite findings by the Environment Protection Agency last year that they pose “an unreasonable risk to human health.” Previous research suggests a lag time of up to 40 years between TCE exposure and onset of Parkinson’s — providing a critical window of opportunity.
Worldwide, there are six million people with the disease. Famous patients include Sir Billy Connolly, Michael J. Fox, and Neil Diamond. The study is published in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.