Trichloroethylene, at room temperature is a nonflammable, colorless liquid with a somewhat sweet odor and a sweet, burning taste. It is known as Triclene and Vitran and by other trade names. Trichloroethylene is now used mainly as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts. It is also used as a solvent in other ways and is used to make other chemicals. Trichloroethylene can also be found in some household products, including typewriter correction fluid, paint removers, adhesives, and spot removers. Most people can begin to smell trichloroethylene in air when there are around 100 parts of trichloroethylene per million parts of air (ppm).
Pathways for trichloroethylene in the environment
By far, the biggest source of trichloroethylene in the environment arises from its evaporation from factories that use it to remove grease from metals. Also, it can enter the air and water when it is disposed of at chemical waste sites. Although TCE evaporates easily, it can stay in the soil and in groundwater for years. Once it is in the air, about half will be broken down within a week. When trichloroethylene is broken down in the air, phosgene, a lung irritant, can be formed. Also, trichloroethylene can break down under high heat and alkaline conditions to form dichloroacetylene and phosgene.
Of the 1,428 hazardous waste sites identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the most serious in the nation—referred to as the National Priorities List (NPL), or Superfund—at least 861, or 60 percent, are known to contain trichloroethylene. Additionally, there are tens of thousands of other cleanup sites across the nation. The full extent of TCE contamination nationwide is unclear. TCE contamination of groundwater is pervasive. It is estimated that between 9 and 34 percent of drinking water supply sources have some trichloroethylene contamination.
In the body, trichloroethylene may break down into dichloroacetic acid (DCA), trichloroacetic acid (TCA), chloral hydrate, and 2-chloroacetaldehyde. These products have been shown to be toxic to animals and are probably toxic to humans. Once trichloroethylene is in water, much of it will evaporate into the air; again, about half will break down within a week. It will take days to weeks to break down in surface water. In groundwater the breakdown is much slower because of the much slower evaporation rate. Very little trichloroethylene breaks down in the soil, and it can pass through the soil into underground water. It is found in some foods. The trichloroethylene found in foods is believed to come from contamination of the water used in food processing, or from food processing equipment cleaned with trichloroethylene. TCE does not build up (that is, bioaccumulate) in fish; nonetheless, low levels have been found in some fish.
Exposure to trichloroethylene
Trichloroethylene is found in the outdoor air at levels far less than 1 part per million (ppm). When measured several years ago, some of the water supplies in the United States were found to have trichloroethylene. The most recent monitoring study found average levels in surface water ranging from 0.0001 to 0.001 ppm of water and an average level of 0.007 ppm in groundwater. Currently the EPA does not list a reference dose (RfD: An estimate of daily oral exposure in humans, generally considered to be "safe,") although in their 2001 "Draft Risk Assessment for TCE" the EPA proposed a new reference dose of 0.0003 milligram per kilogram (part-per-million) per day (mg/kg/d) for noncancer endpoints. The reference dose is important for determining allowable concentrations of TCE in groundwater.
About 400,000 workers are exposed routinely to trichloroethylene in the United States. Also, the chemical can get into air or water in many ways. For example, at waste treatment facilities; by evaporation from paints, glues, and other products; or by release from factories where it is made. Another way people may be exposed is by breathing the air around factories that use the chemical. People living near hazardous waste sites may be exposed to it in the air or in their drinking water, or in the water used for bathing or cooking. Additionally, those living near waste sites—or over groundwater contaminated with TCE—may be exposed through a process called "vapor intrusion." This is when chemicals in groundwater volatilize and enter dwellings or workspace generally through a basement or lower floor of the building.
Pathways for trichloroethylene in the body
Trichloroethylene enters your body when you breathe air, drink water, or shower or bathe in water containing it. It can also enter your body if you get it on your skin. You could be exposed to contaminated water or air if you live near or work in a factory that uses trichloroethylene or if you live near a waste disposal site that contains trichloroethylene. If you inhale the chemical, about half the amount you breathe in will get into your bloodstream and organs. You will exhale the rest. If you drink trichloroethylene, most of it will be absorbed into your blood. If trichloroethylene comes in contact with your skin, some of it can enter your body, although not as easily as when you breathe or swallow it.
Once in your blood, your liver changes much of the trichloroethylene into other chemicals. The majority of these breakdown products leave your body in the urine within a day. Also, you will breathe out much of the trichloroethylene that is in your bloodstream quickly. Some of the trichloroethylene or its breakdown products can be stored in body fat for a brief period, and thus may build up in your body if exposure continues.
Health effects of trichloroethylene
To protect the public from the harmful effects of toxic chemicals and to find ways to treat people who have been harmed, scientists use many tests.
You should know that one way to learn whether a chemical will harm people is to determine how the body absorbs, uses, and releases the chemical. For some chemicals, animal testing may be necessary. Animal testing may also help identify such health effects as cancer or birth defects. Without laboratory animals, scientists would lose a basic method for getting information needed to make wise decisions that protect public health. Scientists have the responsibility to treat research animals with care and compassion. Scientists must comply with strict animal care guidelines because laws today protect the welfare of research animals.
Additionally, there are vigorous national and international efforts to develop alternatives to animal testing. The efforts focus on both in vitro and in silico approaches and methods. For example, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) created the NTP Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods (NICEATM) in 1998. The role of NICEATM is to serve the needs of high quality, credible science by facilitating development and validation—and regulatory and public acceptance—of innovative, revised test methods that reduce, refine, and replace the use of animals in testing while strengthening protection of human health, animal health and welfare, and the environment. In Europe, similar efforts at developing alternatives to animal based testing are taking place under the aegis of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM).
Trichloroethylene was once used as an anesthetic for surgery. People who are exposed to large amounts of trichloroethylene can become dizzy or sleepy and may become unconscious when exposed to very high levels. Death may occur from inhalation of large amounts. Many people have jobs where they work with trichloroethylene and can breathe it or get it on their skin. Some people who get concentrated solutions of trichloroethylene on their skin develop rashes. People who breathe moderate levels of trichloroethylene may have headaches or dizziness. It is possible that some people who breathe high levels of trichloroethylene may develop damage to some of the nerves in the face. People have reported health effects when exposed to the level of trichloroethylene at which its odor is noticeable. Also, effects have occurred at much higher levels. The effects reported at high levels include liver and kidney damage and changes in heart beat. The levels at which these effects occur in humans are not well characterized. Animals that were exposed to moderate levels of trichloroethylene had enlarged livers, and high-level exposure caused liver and kidney damage.
It is uncertain whether people who breathe air or drink water containing trichloroethylene are at higher risk of cancer, or of having reproductive effects. More and more studies suggest that more birth defects may occur when mothers drink water containing trichloroethylene. People who used water for several years from two wells that had high levels of trichloroethylene may have had a higher incidence of childhood leukemia than other people, but these findings are not conclusive. In another study of trichloroethylene exposure from well water, increased numbers of children were reported to be born with heart defects. This has been supported by data from some animal studies showing developmental effects of trichloroethylene on the heart. Other chemicals, however, were in the water from this well and may have contributed to these effects. One study reported a higher number of children with a rare defect in the respiratory system and eye defects. Another study reported that the risk for neural tube defects and oral cleft palates were higher among mothers with trichloroethylene in their water during pregnancy. Children listed in the National Exposure Subregistry of persons exposed to trichloroethylene were reported to have higher rates of hearing and speech impairment. There are many questions regarding these reports. There were small numbers of children with defects and trichloroethylene levels at which the effects occurred were not defined well. It is currently not possible, therefore, to make firm conclusions about the exact effects of trichloroethylene from these studies, and more studies need to be done.
We do not have any clear evidence that trichloroethylene alone in drinking water can cause leukemia or any other type of cancer in humans. As part of the National Exposure Subregistry, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) compiled data on 4,280 residents of three states (Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana) who had environmental exposure to trichloroethylene. The agency found no definitive evidence for an excess of cancers from trichloroethylene exposure. An increase of respiratory cancer was noted in older men, but this effect was thought to result from smoking rather than trichloroethylene exposure. A study in New Jersey found an association between leukemia in women and exposure to trichloroethylene in the drinking water. A study in Massachusetts found that exposure was associated with leukemia in children. In studies with people, there are many factors that are not fully understood. More studies need to be done to establish the relationship between exposure to trichloroethylene and cancer.
In studies using high doses of trichloroethylene in rats and mice, tumors in the lungs, liver, and testes were found, providing some evidence that high doses of trichloroethylene can cause cancer in experimental animals. Based on the limited data in humans regarding trichloroethylene exposure and cancer, and evidence that high doses of trichloroethylene can cause cancer in animals, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that trichloroethylene is probably carcinogenic to humans. Trichloroethylene has been nominated for listing in the National Toxicology Program (NTP) 9th Report on Carcinogens. Evaluation of this substance by the NTP review committee is ongoing.
Medical tests for trichloroethylene
There are some tests that can show if you have been recently exposed to trichloroethylene since this chemical can be measured in your breath. Also, a doctor can have trichloroethylene or a number of breakdown products of trichloroethylene measured in your urine or blood. These types of tests are referred to as biomonitoring. None of these tests, however, is routinely available at your doctor's office. If the measurements are done soon after the exposure, the breath levels can indicate whether you have been exposed to a large amount of trichloroethylene or only a small amount. Urine and blood tests can also show if you have been exposed to large amounts of this chemical. Since one of the breakdown products leaves your body very slowly, it can be measured in the urine for up to about 1 week after trichloroethylene exposure. Exposure to other similar chemicals, however, can produce the same breakdown products in your urine and blood. Therefore, these methods cannot determine for sure whether you have been exposed to trichloroethylene.
Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.