Health effects of tetrachloroethylene
Tetrachloroethylene is a synthetic chemical that is widely used for dry cleaning of fabrics and for metal-degreasing operations. It is also used as a starting material (building block) for making other chemicals and is used in some consumer products. Other names for tetrachloroethylene include perchloroethylene, PCE, perc, tetrachloroethene, perclene, and perchlor. It is a nonflammable liquid at room temperature. It evaporates easily into the air and has a sharp, sweet odor. Most people can smell tetrachloroethylene when it is present in the air at a level of 1 part in 1 million parts of air (ppm) or more. In an experiment, some people could smell tetrachloroethylene in water at a level of 0.3 ppm.
Pathways in the enviroment
Tetrachloroethylene enters the environment mostly by evaporating into the air during use. It can also get into water supplies and the soil during disposal of sewage sludge and factory waste and when leaking from underground storage tanks. Tetrachloroethylene may also get into the air, soil, or water by leaking or evaporating from storage and waste sites. It can stay in the air for several months before it is broken down into other chemicals or is brought back down to the soil and water by rain.
Much of the tetrachloroethylene that gets into water and soil will evaporate into the air. However, because tetrachloroethylene can travel through soils quite easily, it can get into underground drinking water supplies. If it gets into underground water, it may stay there for many months without being broken down. If conditions are right, bacteria will break down some of it and some of the chemicals formed may also be harmful. Under some conditions, tetrachloroethylene may stick to the soil and stay there. It does not seem to build up in animals that live in water, such as fish, clams, and oysters. We do not know if it builds up in plants grown on land.
People can be exposed to tetrachloroethylene from environmental and occupational sources and from consumer products. Common environmental levels of tetrachloroethylene (called background levels) are several thousand times lower than levels found in some workplaces. Background levels are found in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, and in the food we eat. The chemical is found most frequently in air and, less often, in water. Tetrachloroethylene gets into air by evaporation from industrial or dry cleaning operations. It is also released from areas where chemical wastes containing it are stored. It is frequently found in water. For example, tetrachloroethylene was found in 38% of 9,232 surface water sampling sites throughout the United States. There is no similar information on how often the chemical is found in air samples, but we know it is widespread. We do not know how often it is found in soil, but in one study, it was found in 5% of 359 sediment samples.
In general, tetrachloroethylene levels in air are higher in cities or industrial areas where it is in use more than in more rural or remote areas. You can smell it at levels of 1 ppm in air. However, the background level of tetrachloroethylene in air is usually less than 1 part in 1 billion parts of air (ppb). The air close to dry cleaning shops and chemical waste sites has levels of tetrachloroethylene higher than background levels. These levels are usually less than 1 ppm, the level at which you can smell it. Water, both above and below ground, may contain tetrachloroethylene. Levels in water are also usually less than 1 ppb. Levels in contaminated water near disposal sites are higher than levels in water far away from those sites. Water polluted with this chemical may have levels greater than 1 ppm. In soil, background levels are probably 100–1,000 times lower than 1 ppm.
You can also be exposed to tetrachloroethylene by using certain consumer products. Products that may contain it include water repellents, silicone lubricants, fabric finishers, spot removers, adhesives, and wood cleaners. Although uncommon, small amounts of tetrachloroethylene have been found in food, especially food prepared near a dry cleaning shop. When you bring clothes home from the dry cleaners, the clothes may release small amounts of tetrachloroethylene into the air. The full significance to human health of these exposures to small amounts of tetrachloroethylene is unknown, but to date, they appear to be relatively harmless. Tetrachloroethylene can also be found in the breast milk of mothers who have been exposed to the chemical.
The people with the greatest chance of exposure to tetrachloroethylene are those who work with it. According to estimates from a survey conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), more than 650,000 U.S. workers may be exposed.
For the general population, the estimated amount that a person might breathe per day ranges from 0.08 to 0.2 milligrams. The estimated amount that most people might drink in water ranges from 0.0001 to 0.002 milligrams per day. These are very small amounts.
Pathways in the body
Tetrachloroethylene can enter your body when you breathe air containing it. How much enters your body in this way depends on how much of the chemical is in the air, how fast and deeply you are breathing, and how long you are exposed to it. Tetrachloroethylene may also enter your body when you drink water or eat food containing the chemical. How much enters your body in this way depends on how much of the chemical you drink or eat. These two exposure routes are the most likely ways people will take in tetrachloroethylene. These are also the most likely ways that people living near areas polluted with the chemical, such as hazardous waste sites, might be exposed to it. If tetrachloroethylene is trapped against your skin, a small amount of it can pass through into your body. Very little tetrachloroethylene in the air can pass through your skin into your body.
Most tetrachloroethylene leaves your body from your lungs when you breathe out. This is true whether you take in the chemical by breathing, drinking, eating, or touching it. A small amount of the tetrachloroethylene is changed by your body (especially your liver) into other chemicals that are removed from your body in urine. Most of the changed tetrachloroethylene leaves your body in a few days. Some of it that you take in is found in your blood and other tissues, especially body fat. Part of the tetrachloroethylene that is stored in fat may stay in your body for several days or weeks before it is eliminated.
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.
One way to see if a chemical will hurt people is to learn how the chemical is absorbed, used, and released by the body; for some chemicals, animal testing may be necessary. Animal testing may also be used to identify health effects such as cancer or birth defects. Without laboratory animals, scientists would lose a basic method to get information needed to make wise decisions to protect public health. Scientists have the responsibility to treat research animals with care and compassion. Laws today protect the welfare of research animals, and scientists must comply with strict animal care guidelines.
Tetrachloroethylene has been used safely as a general anesthetic agent, so at high concentrations, it is known to produce loss of consciousness. When concentrations in air are high—particularly in closed, poorly ventilated areas—single exposures can cause dizziness, headache, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty in speaking and walking, unconsciousness, and death. Irritation may result from repeated or extended skin contact with the chemical. As you might expect, these symptoms occur almost entirely in work (or hobby) environments when individuals have been accidentally exposed to high concentrations or have intentionally abused tetrachloroethylene to get a "high." In industry, most workers are exposed to levels lower than those causing dizziness, sleepiness, and other nervous system effects. The health effects of breathing in air or drinking water with low levels of tetrachloroethylene are not definitely known. However, at levels found in the ambient air or drinking water, risk of adverse health effects is minimal. The effects of exposing babies to tetrachloroethylene through breast milk are unknown. Results from some studies suggest that women who work in dry cleaning industries where exposures to tetrachloroethylene can be quite high may have more menstrual problems and spontaneous abortions than women who are not exposed. However, it is not known for sure if tetrachloroethylene was responsible for these problems because other possible causes were not considered.
Results of animal studies, conducted with amounts much higher than those that most people are exposed to, show that tetrachloroethylene can cause liver and kidney damage and liver and kidney cancers even though the relevance to people is unclear. Although it has not been shown to cause cancer in people, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined that tetrachloroethylene may reasonably be anticipated to be a human carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that tetrachloroethylene is probably carcinogenic to humans. Exposure to very high levels of tetrachloroethylene can be toxic to the unborn pups of pregnant rats and mice. Changes in behavior were observed in the offspring of rats that breathed high levels of the chemical while they were pregnant. Rats that were given oral doses of tetrachloroethylene when they were very young, when their brains were still developing, were hyperactive when they became adults. How tetrachloroethylene may affect the developing brain in human babies is not known.
One way of testing for tetrachloroethylene exposure is to measure the amount of the chemical in the breath, much the same way breath alcohol measurements are used to determine the amount of alcohol in the blood. This test has been used to measure levels of the chemical in people living in areas where the air is contaminated with tetrachloroethylene or those exposed to the chemical through their work. Because it is stored in the body's fat and is slowly released into the bloodstream, it can be detected in the breath for weeks following a heavy exposure. Tetrachloroethylene can be detected in the blood. Also, breakdown products of the chemical can be detected in the blood and urine of people exposed to tetrachloroethylene. Trichloroacetic acid (TCA), a breakdown product of tetrachloroethylene can be detected for several days after exposure. These tests are relatively simple to perform. The breath, blood, or urine must be collected in special containers and then sent to a laboratory for testing. Because exposure to other chemicals can produce the same breakdown products in the urine and blood, the tests for breakdown products cannot determine if you have been exposed only to tetrachloroethylene.
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.