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Rochester Science

LeRoy mass hysteria: what is trychloroethylene?

The big news this weekend in LeRoy has been about Erin Brockovich and a camera crew being ordered off LeRoy High School property after having attempted what appears to be – for lack of a better word – a guerrilla soil sample. Mrs. Brockovich says that she’s looking into a chemical spill that happened some forty years ago involving trychloroethylene. The @DandC reports that traces of trychloroethylene (TCE) can still be found in the water there.

What, then, is trychloroethylene?

TCE is a very commonly-used solvent whose primary function is removing grease and oil off machined parts in factories. It is what’s known as a “Volatile Organic Compound,” which basically means that, when exposed to air, it generally evaporates off.

TCE is definitely some serious stuff, causing burns on the skin and respiratory problems for those exposed to it for long stretches without proper ventilation or safety equipment. It does also cause problems in the nervous system, but according to the Department of Environmental Protection, these symptoms include dizziness, sleepiness, confusion and blurred vision. If those symptoms sound a lot like what happens when you’re exposed to any type of fumes, that’s because they are.

There are not, however, any official documents anywhere that I can find that suggest even the remotest possibility of Tourette’s-like symptoms from exposure to TCE. Even more dubious: 12 girls and 1 boy out of approximately 700 would have to have been particularly exposed to TCE in a way that the rest were not. Way back at the beginning of this exercise, it was determined that the kids did not seem to have the same classes in common.

Anything is possible and we’ll have to see how things play out. But on a list of potential suspects for the LeRoy girl’s condition, I’d have to put TCE at the bottom of the barrel.

For more information about what TCE is and does, here’s a few links to get you started:

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.