Tag Archives: trichloroethylene exposure


And this is how they do it

Yesterday I was in Longmeadow, MA for a quick visit with our friends Melinda and Kihan. Mel and I were out tooling around, and she spotted the Google Maps Street View car on an adjacent avenue. We then spent ten frantic minutes driving around trying to find it again (because, why not) and just when we’d given up, we did. So, naturally, we pulled in behind the vehicle and snapped a bunch of photos like some deranged middle aged groupies. All in good fun.

After lunch today, I was back on the road home again and passed a massDOT (Massachusetts Department of Transportation) vehicle with a panoramic video camera mounted on the roof. It seemed a funny coincidence witnessing two ‘road crews’ within twenty-four hours. Also, as it so happens, I have somewhat of a personal connection to Department of Transportation  highway footage.

It was 1984, and I worked at a company in Denver that did post production of motion pictures. I was employed in Inspection, and one of our tasks was to view all the film before it was shipped out. When I took the job I imagined myself sitting alone in a darkened theatre, watching full length features. In reality, we watched soundless footage on small monitors at high speed, and often it was upside down or backwards. One of our biggest clients was the Colorado Department of Transportation. They filmed highways all around the state in order to assess their condition. I viewed countless reels of roads, careening down them at high speed and often without regard to gravity.

Before packaging, we diced and spliced each reel of film and then ‘washed’ it in vats of trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent and degreaser which, interestingly enough, was first developed as an anesthetic. However, it is now recognized by the EPA as a human carcinogen, associated primarily with kidney cancer.

Fortunately, I held this job for a mere four months. I believe it is worth noting that the exposure I experienced was acute; we wore neither gloves nor respiratory masks (they were available, but the individuals who trained me told me not to bother and I didn’t). Four or five times a day I would enter a small, poorly ventilated room and immerse my arms up to the elbows in trichloroethylene. The smell was so strong I could taste it and the skin on my hands would turn cold upon contact with the solvent.

Although casual about any risk to my own health (I was 24–invincible!), I became pregnant with my first child while employed there. As I neared the end of the first trimester, I began to feel uneasy and placed a call to OSHA. There was actually not a lot of information (or, clearly, regulation) in regard to trichloroethylene then, but there was an association between the solvent and liver toxicity. No longer complacent about the safety of my workplace, I gave my two weeks notice. Six months later my daughter was born–seemingly unscathed.

There is no data linking trichloroethylene to lung cancer and my own exposure precluded my diagnosis by many years. This rambling tale (from two cars with cameras to carcinogens) may be totally irrelevant. However, I have long felt that the anecdotal data that patients can provide might lead to a greater understanding of why those of us without clearly identified risk factors (smoking, radon exposure) get lung cancer. So, I’ll throw it out there.

And just a BTW/FYI:  I have written a guest post for the Stanford blog of medicine about clinical trial participation. For those who are not yet exhausted, a link:  http://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2012/04/clinical-trials-my-next-good-chance/