Recognizing Emerging Environmental Problems: The Case of Chlorinated Solvents in Groundwater

Novel technologies often introduce new chemicals for which the human toxicity and environmental effects may be unknown to the industry responsible and unsuspected by public health agencies. In this context, I discuss the introduction of vapor-degreasing by manufacturing industries in the 1930s and the use of chlorinated solvents for degreasing metal parts prior to assembly of automobiles, aircraft, etc. The release of such chemicals to the subsurface and the subsequent contamination of groundwaters were not appreciated until the late 1970s when their widespread presence was finally recognized. The lack of a technical paradigm explaining the processes of contamination and the potential adverse health effects prevented the anticipation of this problem. Furthermore, it identifies the need for use-inspired basic research, such as that which identified the process of stratospheric ozone depletion, so that such environmental problems may be anticipated and public policy developed to mitigate the effects.