Section 1.4. Who Is at Risk for Exposure to Tetrachloroethylene?

Course: WB4066
CE Original Date: June 30, 2018
CE Expiration Date: June 30, 2020
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Learning Objectives

After completing this section, you will be able to identify the populations with potentially high exposures to tetrachloroethylene.

Overview

Various segments of the population can be exposed to levels of tetrachloroethylene that are significantly above normal background concentrations [ATSDR 2015]. Persons who might be at greater risk of higher level exposure to PCE include

  • workers in industries such as dry cleaning, machining, and electronics, as well as people who use tetrachloroethylene-containing products,
  • people living with dry cleaning workers,
  • people residing near contaminated sites or dry cleaning locations, and
  • the fetus and nursing newborn of women exposed to tetrachloroethylene through transfer to the placenta or breast milk, respectively.
Workers

Occupational exposures are by far the source of the highest-level exposures to tetrachloroethylene. Exposure to tetrachloroethylene occurs most often in the dry cleaning industry, but substantial exposures also occur in metal manufacturing industries through degreasing processes, and from a variety of uses in several other industries (such as manufacturing apparel, other textile products, electronic components and accessories; paper and pulp plants; and printing and publishing industries, etc.) [Gold LS et al. 2008].

Workers’ Family Members

Indoor air of exposed dry-cleaning workers’ homes can contain levels of tetrachloroethylene much higher than those in the homes of non-exposed workers [Aggazzotti et al. 1994a; Aggazzotti et al. 1994b]. A survey of 30 such homes found indoor tetrachloroethylene levels of 34–3,000 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) (5.0–442 ppb), which was significantly higher than levels in control homes (1–16 μg/m3 or 0.1–2.4 ppb). These higher exposures were attributed to clothing worn home from work and workers’ breath, since 70% or more of an oral or inhaled dose of tetrachloroethylene is eliminated in expired air.

Consumers

Exposure to tetrachloroethylene can occur from contact with certain consumer products. Tetrachloroethylene is found as an ingredient in some consumer products such as adhesives, stain removers, and auto care products [HHS 2015]. People who use tetrachloroethylene-containing products in a poorly ventilated area without proper use of personal protective equipment have an increased likelihood of exposure.

Clothes, drapes, and other dry-cleaned fabrics can also serve as a source of tetrachloroethylene release, resulting in elevated indoor air levels. One study found that newly dry-cleaned garments stored in a residential closet resulted in tetrachloroethylene levels of 0.5–2.9 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3) (74–428 ppb) in the closet after one day. Initial “airing out” of the clothes for 4 to 8 hours had little effect on the resulting emissions [Tichenor et al. 1990]. A 2-year-old boy was found dead 1.5 hours after he was placed in his room with curtains that had been incorrectly dry-cleaned in a coin-operated dry cleaning machine [Garnier et al. 1996].

Special Populations

People who live near contaminated sites or dry cleaning locations might be exposed to higher levels than the general population. Contaminated water used for bathing and laundering can emit vapors that increase indoor air levels of tetrachloroethylene. People living in New York City apartment buildings that also housed dry cleaners were exposed to higher levels of tetrachloroethylene (indoor air level of 27.5 µg/m3) than were residents of buildings without a dry cleaner (2.3 µg/m3) [Storm et al. 2013].

Fetus and Nursing Newborn of Women at Risk for Exposure

Data from animal and human studies indicate that tetrachloroethylene crosses the placenta, placing the fetus at risk of exposure [Fredriksson et al. 1993; Ghantous et al. 1986; Van der Gulden and Zielhuis 1989].

Tetrachloroethylene, like many chlorinated hydrocarbons, can be transmitted in breast milk [EPA 2012a]. In one case report, a nursing mother was repeatedly exposed to tetrachloroethylene vapors during lunch-hour visits with her husband at a dry-cleaning plant. She had tetrachloroethylene levels of 300 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL) in blood and 1,000 μg/dL in breast milk. The nursing infant developed obstructive jaundice, possibly as a result of tetrachloroethylene exposure [Bagnell and Ellenberger 1977].

Key Points
  • Workers in industries such as dry cleaning, machining, and electronics, as well as people who use tetrachloroethylene-containing products, have an increased likelihood of exposure.
  • Family members of exposed workers are subject to higher risk for exposure to tetrachloroethylene.
  • People who live near contaminated sites or dry cleaning locations might be exposed to higher levels than the general population.
  • Tetrachloroethylene crosses the placenta and can be found in breast milk; therefore, the fetus and nursing newborn could be at increased risk for exposure via maternal exposure.
Page last reviewed: April 5, 2018