Tetrachloroethylene is a man-made substance widely used for dry cleaning fabrics and textiles and for metal-degreasing operations. It is also used as a starting material (building block) for the production of other man-made chemicals. Other names that may be used for tetrachloroethylene include perchloroethylene, perc, PCE, perclene, and perchlor. Although tetrachloroethylene is a liquid at room temperature, some of the liquid can be expected to evaporate into the air producing an ether-like odor; evaporation increases as temperature increases.
Humans can be exposed to tetrachloroethylene from environmental, consumer product, and occupational sources. Common environmental levels of tetrachloroethylene (often called background levels) are usually several thousand times lower than levels found in some workplaces. Background levels found in the air we breathe and in the food and water we consume probably result from evaporation from industrial or dry-cleaning operations or from releases from areas where chemical wastes are stored. Tetrachloroethylene has been found in at least 330 of the 1117 National Priorities List (NPL) hazardous waste sites.
In general, tetrachloroethylene levels in air are higher in urban and industrialized areas than in more rural or remote areas. Higher-than-background concentrations of tetrachloroethylene have occasionally been measured in air close to chemical waste sites and in water taken from nearby wells.
Exposure to tetrachloroethylene may also occur from some consumer products. Products that may contain tetrachloroethylene include auto brake quieters and cleaners, suede protectors, water repellants, silicone lubricants, belt lubricants and dressings, specialized aerosol cleaners, ignition wire driers, fabric finishers, spot removers, adhesives, and wood cleaners. Although uncommon, small amounts of tetrachloroethylene have been found in food.
The levels of tetrachloroethylene in air in dry-cleaning shops, textile and chemical processing operations, and degreasing operations can result in exposures that are much higher than those found in the outside environment. Levels of tetrachloroethylene in the workplace are usually measured in parts of tetrachloroethylene per million parts of air (ppm), while common environmental levels are usually measured in parts per billion (ppb) or parts per trillion (ppt).
Because tetrachloroethylene evaporates quickly, the most common exposure to tetrachloroethylene comes from breathing air containing it. This is certainly true for individuals who work with the chemical, but it is probably also true for those who live in industrial and commercial areas where large amounts of the compound are used or disposed of. Tetrachloroethylene may also enter the body through drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food. Because tetrachloroethylene does not pass through the skin to any significant extent, entry into the body by this path is of minimal concern, although skin irritation may result from repeated or prolonged contact with the undiluted liquid. Scientific reports indicate that tetrachloroethylene is present (and may in fact be concentrated) in the breast milk of mothers who have been exposed to the chemical.
In high concentrations in air, particularly in closed, poorly ventilated areas, single exposures to tetrachloroethylene can cause central nervous system (CNS) effects leading to dizziness, headache, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty in speaking and walking, and possibly unconsciousness and death. As might be expected, these symptoms occur almost entirely in work (or hobby) environments. The potential long-term health effects that might occur in humans from breathing lower levels of tetrachloroethylene than those that produce CNS effects or from ingesting very low levels of the chemical found in some water supplies have not been identified. The effects of exposing infants to tetrachloroethylene through breast milk are unknown.
Animal studies, conducted with amounts much higher than typical environmental levels, have shown that tetrachloroethylene can cause liver and kidney damage, liver and kidney cancers, and leukemia (cancer of the tissues that form the white blood cells). Developmental effects in fetuses have been observed but only at tetrachloroethylene exposure levels that also produce toxicity in the maternal animal.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined that tetrachloroethylene may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen. Based on evidence from animal studies, tetrachloroethylene is thought to be capable of causing cancer in humans. It should be emphasized, however, that currently available information is not sufficient to determine whether tetrachloroethylene causes cancer in humans.
Short-term exposures to air containing more than 100 ppm of tetrachloroethylene have produced harmful effects in both humans and animals, and more prolonged exposures
to approximately 9 ppm caused harmful liver effects in mice. It should be pointed out that some of the highest environmental levels of tetrachloroethylene ever recorded (at waste disposal sites, for example) were still 150 times smaller than the concentrations shown to produce symptoms of toxicity in animals after repeated exposure. Drinking (or eating) the equivalent of approximately 60 to 80 mg (less than a spoonful) of undiluted tetrachloroethylene per kg of body weight (1 kg = 2.2 pounds) has produced effects similar to drinking alcohol. Tetrachloroethylene was used in the past as a medicine to eliminate worms in humans, but safer and more effective drugs are now available. More prolonged exposures in animals have produced harm to the liver at doses of approximately 100 mg/kg/day. These levels of exposure are more than 1,000 times higher than would be expected even if humans ingested the most contaminated drinking water ever reported.
Cancer--From data in animals, EPA has estimated that if people breathe air containing 1 ppm tetrachloroethylene all day every day for 70 years, there would be an added risk of 66 additional cases of cancer in a population of 10,000 people (or 65,500 additional cases in a population of 10,000,000) over the number of cases that would be observed in a population not exposed to tetrachloroethylene. If people consume 1.0 mg tetrachloroethylene/kg/day in food and water every day for 70 years, there would be at the most a risk of 510 additional cases of cancer in a population of 10,000, or 510,000 additional cases in a population of 10,000,000. It should be noted that these risk values are plausible upper-limit estimates. Actual risk levels are unlikely to be higher and may be lower.
The government has made recommendations to limit the exposure of the general public to tetrachloroethylene in drinking water and the exposure of workers to tetrachloroethylene in the workplace.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed the following health advisories to describe concentrations of tetrachloroethylene in drinking water at which no adverse effects are anticipated to occur: 2.0 milligrams per liter of water (mg/L) for short-term exposure of children, 1.4 mg/L for longer term exposure of children, and 5.0 mg/L for long-term exposure of adults. In addition, a drinking water equivalent level
(DWEL) of 0.5 mg/L has been established.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a legally enforceable exposure limit of 25 ppm tetrachloroethylene in air for an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek based on noncancer health considerations. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has classified tetrachloroethylene as a
potential occupational carcinogen and recommends that workplace exposure be limited to the lowest possible level.
Information excerpted from
Toxicological Profile for Tetrachloroethene January 1990
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
United States Public Health Service