Public Health Statement for Chloroethane
PDF Versionpdf icon[67 KB]
This Public Health Statement is the summary chapter from the Toxicological Profile for Chloroethane. It is one in a series of Public Health Statements about hazardous substances and their health effects. A shorter version, the ToxFAQs™, is also available. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present. For more information, call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-888-422-8737.
This public health statement tells you about chloroethane and the effects of exposure.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies the most serious hazardous waste sites in the nation. These sites make up the National Priorities List (NPL) and are the sites targeted for long-term federal cleanup activities. Chloroethane has been found in at least 282 of the 1,467 current or former NPL sites. However, the total number of NPL sites evaluated for this substance is not known. As more sites are evaluated, the sites at which chloroethane is found may increase. This information is important because exposure to this substance may harm you and because these sites may be sources of exposure.
When a substance is released from a large area, such as an industrial plant, or from a container, such as a drum or bottle, it enters the environment. This release does not always lead to exposure. You are exposed to a substance only when you come in contact with it. You may be exposed by breathing, eating, or drinking the substance or by skin contact.
If you are exposed to chloroethane, many factors determine whether you'll be harmed. These factors include the dose (how much), the duration (how long), and how you come in contact with it. You must also consider the other chemicals you're exposed to and your age, sex, diet, family traits, lifestyle, and state of health.
What is chloroethane?
Chloroethane, also called ethyl chloride, is a colorless gas at room temperature and pressure, with a characteristically sharp odor. People can smell chloroethane in the air at levels above 4 parts chloroethane in a million
parts of air by volume (ppm). It can be smelled in water
at levels above 0.02 parts chloroethane in a million parts of water (ppm). In pressurized containers, chloroethane exists as a liquid. However, the liquid evaporates quickly when exposed to air. It catches fire easily and is very dangerous when exposed to heat or flame. Chloroethane does not occur naturally in the environment. It is present in the environment as a result of human activity.
In the past, the largest single use for
chloroethane was for the production of tetraethyl lead, which is a gasoline additive. However, production of chloroethane has decreased dramatically as a result of stricter government regulations controlling lead in gasoline. Other applications include use in the production of ethyl cellulose, dyes, medicinal drugs, and other commercial chemicals, and use as a solvent and refrigerant. It is used to numb skin prior to medical procedures such as ear piercing and skin biopsies, and it is used in the treatment of sports injuries.
What happens to chloroethane when it enters the environment?
Most of the chloroethane released to
the environment ends up as a gas in the atmosphere, while
much smaller amounts enter groundwater as a result of passage
through soil. Once in the atmosphere, chloroethane breaks
down fairly rapidly by reaction with substances in the air.
It takes about 40 days for half of any given amount of chloroethane
that is released to the atmosphere to disappear. In
groundwater, chloroethane changes slowly to ethanol and a
chloride salt as a result of reaction with water. In
addition, some types of bacteria present in the water may
break down chloroethane to smaller compounds. However,
not enough is known about chloroethane to be sure if this
occurs or how long it may remain in groundwater.
How might I be exposed to chloroethane?
Humans can be exposed to chloroethane
from environmental, occupational, and consumer sources.
During the mid-to-late 1970s and the early 1980s, chloroethane
was detected in samples of outdoor air. Air samples
collected in urban and suburban areas contained chloroethane
at an average level of 41–140 parts of chloroethane in a trillion
parts of air (ppt; 1 ppt is 1,000,000 times less than 1 ppm).
Rural air samples contained less than 5 ppt. Current
levels of chloroethane in the air are expected to be even
lower than levels found in the past because of the sharp decrease
in chloroethane production in the United States and the decrease
in chloroethane release. Occurrences of chloroethane
in air can be attributed to releases from factories that manufacture
or use chloroethane; evaporation from some landfills, solvents,
refrigerants, and anesthetics; and releases in fumes from
the burning of plastics and other materials found in trash.
Based on the limited amount of information available on the
occurrence of chloroethane in drinking water, it can be concluded
that extremely low levels of chloroethane may occur in some
drinking water supplies as a result of formation during chlorination,
contamination of rivers and lakes used as drinking water supplies,
or seepage into groundwater resulting from storage of chemical
wastes or disposal at waste sites. However, there is
not enough information available to indicate what levels of
chloroethane occur in drinking water under these circumstances.
No data were located that indicate that chloroethane is found
Exposure may also result from contact
with various consumer products including some solvents, paints,
and refrigerants. People may be exposed to chloroethane
through skin contact as the result of its use as an agent
to numb skin before ear piercing, before skin biopsy, as a
treatment for sports injury, and for other medical reasons.
Occupational exposure may result from inhalation or skin contact.
Workers who may be exposed to chloroethane include physicians,
nurses, and other medical workers, automobile mechanics, office
machine mechanics, household appliance and accessory installers,
assemblers, professional painters, heavy-equipment mechanics,
diesel mechanics, plumbers, and pipe fitters. According
to a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
(NIOSH) survey conducted between 1981 and 1983, an estimated
49,212 workers in the United States were exposed to chloroethane
in the workplace. More recent data are not available
to determine how many workers might be exposed to chloroethane
per year in the United States.
How can chloroethane enter and leave my body?
Chloroethane can enter the body when
a person breathes air containing chloroethane vapor.
Chloroethane may also enter the body through the skin, although
most of it quickly evaporates from the skin's surface.
When a person drinks water containing chloroethane, it enters
the body through the digestive tract. After chloroethane
enters the body, it may leave the body through the lungs.
Some chloroethane may also be changed to acetate, which is
normally found in the body. Other chemicals formed from
chloroethane leave the body in the urine.
People who happen to be near hazardous
waste sites containing chloroethane are most likely to be
exposed to the compound by breathing potentially contaminated
air. People may also be exposed to chloroethane by drinking
potentially contaminated water.
How can chloroethane affect my health?
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.
Brief exposure to high levels of chloroethane
vapor can produce temporary feelings of drunkenness, and at
still higher levels, lack of muscle coordination and unconsciousness.
Adults have felt dizzy and have suffered decreased reaction
times as a result of inhaling chloroethane. They have
also experienced stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and eye
irritation after breathing high concentrations of chloroethane
for a short time.
Workers who breathed chloroethane vapors
for 1.5 to 3 years (levels of chloroethane unknown) had significantly
decreased defensive responses against illness. Inhalant
abusers who intentionally breathe chloroethane vapors at much
higher concentrations than those found in any work environment
or near any hazardous waste site have experienced these neurological
effects. Long term abuse of high chloroethane concentrations
causes the most adverse effects of chloroethane exposure,
namely, those to the nervous system. In the worst recorded
cases of chloroethane abuse by sniffing, the abusers have
had severe symptoms including jerking eye movements, an inability
to control muscles in voluntary movements, difficulty in speaking
clearly, an inability to perform finger tapping exercises,
sluggish lower limb reflexes, seizures, difficulties in walking,
disorientation, short-term memory loss, and hallucinations
affecting their sight and hearing. In one case, damage
to motor and sensory nerves occurred.
Human patients have died after breathing
chloroethane concentrations high enough to induce anesthesia.
Dogs have suffered irregular heart rhythms, followed by death,
when given anesthetic doses of chloroethane. Due to
the risk of accidental death, chloroethane is no longer medically
used as a general anesthetic during major surgery. Chloroethane
can, however, be applied to the skin in the form of chloroethane
spray as a numbing agent prior to minor surgery. If
this spray is applied for too long, frostbite can result.
Some adults have had allergic reactions to the chloroethane
spray while others experienced mild pain after being sprayed
for 10 seconds.
Studies have shown that chloroethane
can enhance the effects of alcohol in rats. It is unknown
if similar interactions between chloroethane and alcohol occur
It is not known whether chloroethane
produces cancer in humans. However, long-term exposure
to high levels of chloroethane vapor has been shown to produce
cancer in mice. There have been no animal or human studies
involving the ability of chloroethane to cause cancer when
either eaten or applied to the skin. The International
Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has reviewed the information
available concerning the ability of chloroethane to cause
cancer. They concluded that chloroethane is not classifiable
as to its carcinogenicity in humans.
How can chloroethane affect children?
This section discusses potential health
effects from exposures during the period from conception to
maturity at 18 years of age in humans. Potential effects
on children resulting from exposures of the parents are also
There are no known unique exposure pathways
by which children may be exposed to chloroethane.
In children, there have been few recorded
reports of exposures to chloroethane or adverse health effects
resulting from this exposure. Brief inhalation exposure
of children to very high concentrations of chloroethane has
resulted in stimulation of certain nerves followed by a decrease
in heart rate. One teenager died from lung paralysis
during general anesthesia with chloroethane. In addition
to these health effects seen specifically in children, the
observed adverse effects of chloroethane exposure in adults
are also expected in children. It is unknown whether
children differ from adults in their susceptibility to health
effects from chloroethane exposure.
We do not know whether chloroethane exposure
can affect development in humans. There is not enough
information to know whether chloroethane affects development
in animals. Only one developmental study has been done
in animals. This study with mice showed that exposure
to high levels of chloroethane during pregnancy delayed bone
development in the offspring.
We do not know whether chloroethane or
its breakdown products within the body can reach and cross
the mother's placenta into her developing baby. One
study has shown that chloroethane can be found in mother's
milk, but we do not know if the mothers were exposed to the
compound by breathing it, eating it, or having it sprayed
on their skin.
How can families reduce the risk of
exposure to chloroethane?
If your doctor finds that you have been
exposed to significant amounts of chloroethane, ask if children
may also be exposed. When necessary your doctor may
need to ask your state Department of Public Health to investigate.
Little information exists concerning
the concentrations of chloroethane that might be present in
drinking water. However, past data indicate that chloroethane
is not a frequent contaminant in drinking water, and therefore
the risk to families from drinking water containing chloroethane
Chloroethane is found in common household
products such as paints, solvents, air fresheners, and deodorant
sprays. Inhaling or ingesting toxic amounts of chloroethane
from these products is possible. Therefore, household
products such as these should be stored out of reach of young
children to prevent accidental poisonings. Always store
household chemicals in their original labeled containers;
never store household chemicals in containers children would
find attractive to eat or drink from, such as old soda bottles.
Keep your Poison Control Center's number by the phone.
Sometimes older children sniff household
chemicals in an attempt to get high. Chloroethane is
sold in drug paraphernalia shops as Ethyl Gaz, Ethyl Four
Star, Black Jac, and Maximum Impact. Your children may
be exposed to chloroethane by inhaling products containing
it and are putting their health at serious risk if they do
so. Talk with your children about the dangers of sniffing
When household products that contain
chloroethane are used properly and are not abused, the concentrations
of chloroethane within them are not high enough to pose a
risk of significant exposure to children.
The tendency of chloroethane to evaporate
upon contact with air makes it highly unlikely that the compound
could be taken home on the parents' work clothes.
Is there a medical test to determine
whether I have been exposed to chloroethane?
Although there are complex analytical
tests that chemists use to measure chloroethane in the blood,
milk, or urine, there are no commonly used medical tests available
to determine whether or not a person has been exposed to chloroethane.
A breath test to determine exposure may be possible but is
not commonly used.
What recommendations has the federal
government made to protect human health?
The federal government develops regulations
and recommendations to protect public health. Regulations
can be enforced by law. Federal agencies that
develop regulations for toxic substances include the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration (OSHA), and the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA). Recommendations provide valuable guidelines to
protect public health but cannot be enforced by law.
Federal organizations that develop recommendations for toxic
substances include the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease
Registry (ATSDR) and the National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Regulations and recommendations can be expressed in not-to-exceed levels in air, water, soil, or food that are usually based on levels that affect animals, then they are adjusted to help protect people. Sometimes these not-to-exceed levels differ among federal organizations because of different exposure times (an 8-hour workday or a 24-hour day), the use of different animal studies, or other factors.
Recommendations and regulations are also periodically updated as more information becomes available. For the most current information, check with the federal agency or organization that provides it. Some regulations and recommendations for chloroethane include the following:
Chloroethane levels in the workplace
are regulated by OSHA. The occupational exposure limit for an 8-hour work day of a 40-hour work week is 1,000 ppm. The EPA requires industry to report discharges or spills of 100 pounds or more.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 1998. Toxicological profile for Chloroethane. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
If you have questions or concerns, please contact your community or state health or environmental quality department or:
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Human Health Sciences
4770 Buford Highway
Chamblee, GA 30341-3717
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO 888-232-6348 (TTY)
Email: Contact CDC-INFO
ATSDR can also tell you the location of occupational and environmental health clinics. These clinics specialize in recognizing, evaluating, and treating illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.