ToxFAQs™ for Trichloroethylene (TCE)
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This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions (FAQs) about trichloroethylene. For more information, call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-800-232-4636. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. It is important you understand this information 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.
Trichloroethylene is used as a solvent for cleaning metal parts. Exposure to very high concentrations of trichloroethylene can cause dizziness headaches, sleepiness, incoordination, confusion, nausea, unconsciousness, and even death. Trichloroethylene has been found in at least 1,051 of the 1,854 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is trichloroethylene?
Trichloroethylene is a colorless, volatile liquid. Liquid trichloroethylene evaporates quickly into the air. It is nonflammable and has a sweet odor.
The two major uses of trichloroethylene are as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts and as a chemical that is used to make other chemicals, especially the refrigerant, HFC-134a.
What happens to trichloroethylene when it enters the environment?
- Trichloroethylene can be released to air, water, and soil at places where it is produced or used.
- Trichloroethylene is broken down quickly in air.
- Trichloroethylene breaks down very slowly in soil and water and is removed mostly through evaporation to air.
- It is expected to remain in groundwater for long time since it is not able to evaporate.
- Trichloroethylene does not build up significantly in plants or animals.
How might I be exposed to trichloroethylene?
- Breathing trichloroethylene in contaminated air.
- Drinking contaminated water.
- Workers at facilities using this substance for metal degreasing are exposed to higher levels of trichloroethylene.
- If you live near such a facility or near a hazardous waste site containing trichloroethylene, you may also have higher exposure to this substance.
How can trichloroethylene affect my health?
Trichloroethylene was once used as an anesthetic for surgery. Exposure to moderate amounts of trichloroethylene may cause headaches, dizziness, and sleepiness; large amounts may cause coma and even death. Eating or breathing high levels of trichloroethylene may damage some of the nerves in the face. Exposure to high levels can also result in changes in the rhythm of the heartbeat, liver damage, and evidence of kidney damage. Skin contact with concentrated solutions of trichloroethylene can cause skin rashes. There is some evidence exposure to trichloroethylene in the work place may cause scleroderma (a systemic autoimmune disease) in some people. Some men occupationally-exposed to trichloroethylene and other chemicals showed decreases in sex drive, sperm quality, and reproductive hormone levels.
How likely is trichloroethylene to cause cancer?
There is strong evidence that trichloroethylene can cause kidney cancer in people and some evidence for trichloroethylene-induced liver cancer and malignant lymphoma. Lifetime exposure to trichloroethylene resulted in increased liver cancer in mice and increased kidney cancer and testicular cancer in rats.
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) considers trichloroethylene to be a known human carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified trichloroethylene as carcinogenic to humans. The EPA has characterized trichloroethylene as carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure.
How can trichloroethylene affect children?
It is not known whether children are more susceptible than adults to the effects of trichloroethylene.
Some human studies indicate that trichloroethylene may cause developmental effects such as spontaneous abortion, congenital heart defects, central nervous system defects, and small birth weight. However, these people were exposed to other chemicals as well.
In some animal studies, exposure to trichloroethylene during development caused decreases in body weight, increases in heart defects, changes to the developing nervous system, and effects on the immune system.
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to trichloroethylene?
- Avoid drinking water from sources that are known to be contaminated with trichloroethylene. Use bottled water if you have concerns about the presence of chemicals in your tap water. You may also contact local drinking water authorities and follow their advice.
- Prevent children from playing in dirt or eating dirt if you live near a waste site that has trichloroethylene.
- Trichloroethylene is used in many industrial products. Follow instructions on product labels to minimize exposure to trichloroethylene.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to trichloroethylene?
Trichloroethylene and its breakdown products (metabolites) can be measured in blood and urine. However, the detection of trichloroethylene or its metabolites cannot predict the kind of health effects that might develop from that exposure. Because trichloroethylene and its metabolites leave the body fairly rapidly, the tests need to be conducted within days after exposure.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The EPA set a maximum contaminant goal (MCL) of 0.005 milligrams per liter (mg/L; 5 ppb) as a national primary drinking standard for trichloroethylene.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration
(OSHA) set a permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 100 ppm for trichloroethylene in air averaged over an 8-hour work day, an acceptable ceiling concentration of 200 ppm provided the 8 hour PEL is not exceeded, and an acceptable maximum peak of 300 ppm for a maximum duration of 5 minutes in any 2 hours.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) considers trichloroethylene to be a potential occupational carcinogen and established a recommended exposure limit (REL) of 2 ppm (as a 60-minute ceiling) during its use as an anesthetic agent and 25 ppm (as a 10-hour TWA) during all other exposures.
This ToxFAQsTM information is taken from the 2019 Toxicological Profile for Trichloroethylene produced by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in Atlanta, GA.
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
Office of Innovation and Analytics, Toxicology Section
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.