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ToxFAQs™ for Carbon Tetrachloride
This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about carbon tetrachloride. For more information, you may call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-888-422-8737. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. 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.
Carbon tetrachloride does not occur naturally. Exposure to this substance results mostly from breathing air, drinking water, or coming in contact with soil that is contaminated with it. Exposure to very high amounts of carbon tetrachloride can damage the liver, kidneys, and nervous system. Carbon tetrachloride can cause cancer in animals. Carbon tetrachloride has been found in at least 425 of the 1,662 National Priority List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is carbon tetrachloride?
Carbon tetrachloride is a manufactured chemical that does not occur naturally. It is a clear liquid with a sweet smell that can be detected at low levels. It is also called carbon chloride, methane tetrachloride, perchloromethane, tetrachloroethane, or benziform.
Carbon tetrachloride is most often found in the air as a colorless gas. It is not flammable and does not dissolve in water very easily. It was used in the production of refrigeration fluid and propellants for aerosol cans, as a pesticide, as a cleaning fluid and degreasing agent, in fire extinguishers, and in spot removers. Because of its harmful effects, these uses are now banned and it is only used in some industrial applications.
What happens to carbon tetrachloride when it enters the environment?
- It moves very quickly into the air upon release, so most of it is in the air.
- It evaporates quickly from surface water.
- Only a small amount sticks to soil particles; the rest evaporates or moves into the groundwater.
- It is very stable in air (lifetime 30-100 years).
- It can be broken down or transformed in soil and water within several days.
- When it does break down, it forms chemicals that can destroy ozone in the upper atmosphere.
- It does not build up in animals. We do not know if it builds up in plants.
How might I be exposed to carbon tetrachloride?
- Breathing contaminated air near manufacturing plants or waste sites.
- Breathing workplace air when it is used.
- Drinking contaminated water near manufacturing plants and waste sites.
- Breathing contaminated air and skin contact with water while showering or cooking with contaminated water.
- Swimming or bathing in contaminated water.
- Contact with or ingesting contaminated soil at waste sites.
How can carbon tetrachloride affect my health?
High exposure to carbon tetrachloride can cause liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage. These effects can occur after ingestion or breathing carbon tetrachloride, and possibly from exposure to the skin. The liver is especially sensitive to carbon tetrachloride because it enlarges and cells are damaged or destroyed.
Kidneys also are damaged, causing a build up of wastes in the blood. If exposure is low and brief, the liver and kidneys can repair the damaged cells and function normally again. Effects of carbon tetrachloride are more severe in persons who drink large amounts of alcohol.
If exposure is very high, the nervous system, including the brain, is affected. People may feel intoxicated and experience headaches, dizziness, sleepiness, and nausea and vomiting. These effects may subside if exposure is stopped, but in severe cases, coma and even death may occur.
There have been no studies of the effects of carbon tetrachloride on reproduction in humans, but studies in rats showed that long-term inhalation may cause decreased fertility.
How likely is carbon tetrachloride to cause cancer?
Studies in humans have not been able to determine whether or not carbon tetrachloride can cause cancer because usually there has been exposure to other chemicals at the same time. Swallowing or breathing carbon tetrachloride for years caused liver tumors in animals. Mice that breathed carbon tetrachloride also developed tumors of the adrenal gland. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that carbon tetrachloride may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that carbon tetrachloride is possibly carcinogenic to humans, whereas the EPA determined that carbon tetrachloride is a probable human carcinogen.
How can carbon tetrachloride affect children?
The health effects of carbon tetrachloride have not been studied in children, but they are likely to be similar to those seen in adults exposed to the chemical. We do not know whether children differ from adults in their susceptibility to carbon tetrachloride.
A few survey-type studies suggest that maternal drinking water exposure to carbon tetrachloride might possibly be related to certain birth defects. Studies in animals showed that carbon tetrachloride can cause early fetal deaths, but did not cause birth defects. A study with human breast milk in a test tube suggested that it would be possible for carbon tetrachloride to pass from the maternal circulation to breast milk, but there is no direct demonstration of this occurring.
How can families reduce the risks of exposure to carbon tetrachloride?
- Discard any product that contains carbon tetrachloride that you may have at home and may have used in the past.
- Household chemicals should be stored out of the reach of children in their original containers.
- Sometimes older children sniff household chemical products to get high. Talk to your children about the dangers of sniffing chemicals.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to carbon tetrachloride?
Several sensitive and specific tests are available to measure carbon tetrachloride in exposed persons. The most convenient way is simply to measure carbon tetrachloride in the exhaled air. Carbon tetrachloride also can be measured in blood, fat, or other tissues. These tests are not usually done in the doctor's office because they require special equipment. Although these tests can show that a person has been exposed to carbon tetrachloride, the results cannot be used to reliably predict whether any adverse health effect might result. Because carbon tetrachloride leaves the body fairly quickly, these methods are best suited to detecting exposures that have occurred within the last several days.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The EPA has set a limit for carbon tetrachloride in drinking water of 5 parts of carbon tetrachloride per billion parts of water (5 ppb). The EPA has also set limits on how much carbon tetrachloride can be released from an industrial plant into waste water and is preparing to set limits on how much carbon tetrachloride can escape from an industrial plant into outside air.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) set a limit of 10 ppm for carbon tetrachloride in workplace air for an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2005. Toxicological Profile for Carbon Tetrachloride (Update). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Public 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
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-57
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO · 888-232-6348 (TTY)
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.
Information line and technical assistance:
To order toxicological profiles, contact:
National Technical Information Service
5285 Port Royal Road
Springfield, VA 22161
Phone: 800-553-6847 or 703-605-6000
Some PDF files may be electronic conversions from paper copy or other electronic ASCII text files. This conversion may have resulted in character translation or format errors. Users are referred to the original paper copy of the toxicological profile for the official text, figures, and tables. Original paper copies can be obtained via the directions on the toxicological profile home page, which also contains other important information about the profiles.
The information contained here was correct at the time of publication. Please check with the appropriate agency for any changes to the regulations or guidelines cited.
- Page last reviewed: March 3, 2011
- Page last updated: October 25, 2011
- Content source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry