Health effects of 2,4,6-trichlorophenol


Chlorophenols are a group of chemicals in which chlorines (between one and five) have been added to phenol. Phenol is an aromatic compound derived from benzene, the simplest aromatic hydrocarbon, by adding a hydroxy group to a carbon to replace a hydrogen. There are five basic types of chlorophenols: mono[one]chlorophenols, di[two]chlorophenols, tri[three]chlorophenols, tetra[four]chlorophenols, and penta[five]chlorophenols. In all, there are 19 different chlorophenols. Eight are discussed in this document: 2-chlorophenol, 4-chlorophenol, 2,4-dichlorophenol, 2,4,5-trichlorophenol, 2,4,6-trichlorophenol, 2,3,4,5-tetrachlorophenol, 2,3,4,6-tetrachlorophenol, and 2,3,5,6-tetrachlorophenol. Pentachlorophenol is discussed in another document.

Except for 2-chlorophenol, which is a liquid at room temperature, all of the chlorophenols are solids. The chlorophenols have a strong medicinal taste and odor; small amounts (at parts per billion [ppb] to parts per million [ppm] concentrations) can be tasted in water. Very small amounts of chlorophenols can also make fish taste bad. All the compounds discussed are or were produced commercially.

Chlorophenols with at least two chlorines either have been used directly as pesticides or converted into pesticides. Also, chlorophenols, especially 4-chlorophenol, have been used as antiseptics. In addition to being produced commercially, small amounts of some chlorophenols, especially the mono- and dichlorophenols, may be produced when waste water or drinking water is disinfected with chlorine, if certain contaminants are present in the raw water. They are also produced during the bleaching of wood pulp with chlorine when paper is being produced.

Pathways for 2,4,6-trichlorophenol in the environment

Chlorophenols can enter the environment while they are being made or used as pesticides. Most of the chlorophenols released into the environment go into water, with very little entering the air. The compounds that are most likely to go into the air are the mono- and dichlorophenols because they are the most volatile (that is, have the greatest tendency to form vapors or gases). Once in the air, sunlight helps destroy these compounds and rain washes them out of the air. Chlorophenols stick to soil and to sediments at the bottom of lakes, rivers, or streams. However, low levels of chlorophenols in water, soil, or sediment are broken down by microorganisms and are removed from the environment within a few days or weeks.

Exposure to 2,4,6-trichlorophenol

Most people are exposed to very low levels of chlorophenols in drinking water that has been disinfected with chlorine (chlorinated drinking water). Chlorophenols have been measured in chlorinated drinking water at parts per trillion (ppt) concentrations (that is, the amount [weight] of chlorophenols per trillion parts [volume] of water). In lakes, rivers, and streams, chlorophenols were found in less than 1 percent of the water that was tested. Chlorophenols have been measured in city air at concentrations of less than a part per trillion (the amount of chlorophenols [volume] per trillion parts [volume] of air).

It has been estimated during the National Occupational Exposure Survey (NOES) from 1981–1983 that about 5,000 people in the United States are exposed to 4-chlorophenol, 2,4,5-trichlorophenol, or 2,4,6-trichlorophenol at work (NOES 1990). It has not been estimated how many people are exposed at work to the other chlorophenols. People who make chlorophenols or use them as pesticides are most likely to have high exposure to these chemicals. For example, mixtures of tetrachlorophenols are used at sawmills as wood preservatives. Skin contact while treating wood with the tetrachlorophenols is the most likely route of exposure. Another likely route of exposure is breathing air contaminated by mono- and dichlorophenols.

Pathways for 2,4,6-trichlorophenol in the body

When chlorophenols are eaten, almost all of the compounds quickly enter the body. Chlorophenols also rapidly enter the body through the skin. Little is known about how much of the chlorophenols enter the body if one breathes air containing them. The monochlorophenols do not stay inside the body very long. They are changed to less harmful products, and most leave through the urine within 24 hours. The other chlorophenols (dichlorophenol, trichlorophenols, tetrachlorophenols), which also leave through the urine as less harmful chemicals, can stay in the body for several days.

Health effects of 2,4,6-trichlorophenol

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).

One man who splashed pure 2,4-dichlorophenol on his arm and leg died shortly after the accident. Workers who made pesticides from chlorophenols and were exposed to chlorophenols as well as other chemicals through breathing and through the skin developed acne and mild injury to their livers. According to some studies, the risk of cancer was also slightly higher among workers who had made pesticides for a long time. These workers were exposed to very high levels of other chemicals as well as chlorophenols, so it is not certain whether the effects were caused by the chlorophenols or the other chemicals.

Animals that were given food or drinking water containing chlorophenols at high levels developed adverse or negative health effects. The major effects with exposure to high levels of chlorophenols were on the liver and the immune system. Also, the animals that ate or drank chlorophenols did not gain as much weight as the animals that ate food and drank water not containing chlorophenols.

Feeding rats and mice high doses of 2,4-dichlorophenol for a long time did not cause cancer. However, long-term treatment of rats and mice with high doses of 2,4,6-trichlorophenol in food caused leukemia in rats and liver cancer in mice, suggesting that 2,4,6-trichlorophenol may be a carcinogen. The Department of Health and Human Services has determined that 2,4,6-trichlorophenol may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that the chlorophenols as a group, are possibly carcinogenic to man. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that 2,4,6-trichlorophenol is a probable carcinogen.

Putting chlorophenols on the skin or eyes of animals causes severe injuries. Injury is greatest with exposure to the mono- and dichlorophenols. The signs of severe skin injury include redness, swelling, scabbing, and scar formation. The cornea was damaged when monochlorophenols were placed directly onto the eyes of rabbits.

Medical tests for 2,4,6-trichlorophenol

There is no medical test that is specific for chlorophenols to determine whether you have been exposed to these chemicals. Compounds that have been made by your body from chlorophenols can be measured in the urine. However, these compounds can also be found in the urine when you are exposed to other chemicals such as lindane (an insecticide) or to 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (a chemical that kills weeds).

Further reading

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.



(2008). Health effects of 2,4,6-trichlorophenol. Retrieved from


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