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Public Health Statement for Trichloroethylene
This Public Health Statement is the summary chapter from the Toxicological Profile for trichloroethylene. It is one in a series of Public Health Statements about hazardous substances and their health effects. A shorter version, the ToxFAQsTM, 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 1-800-232-4636.
We define a public health statement and show how it can help you learn about trichloroethylene.
A public health statement summarizes information about a hazardous substance. The information is taken from a toxicological profile developed by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's (ATSDR's) Division of Toxicology and Human Health Sciences (DTHHS). A toxicological profile is a thorough review of a hazardous substance.
This toxicological profile examines trichloroethylene. This public health statement summarizes the DTHHS' findings on trichloroethylene, describes the effects of exposure to it, and describes what you can do to limit that exposure.
|Trichloroethylene at hazardous waste sites||
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) identifies the most serious hazardous waste sites in the nation. U.S. EPA then includes these sites the National Priorities List (NPL) and targets it for federal clean-up activities. U.S. EPA has found trichloroethylene in at least 1,045 of the 1,699 current or former NPL sites.
The total number of NPL sites evaluated for trichloroethylene is not known. But the possibility remains that as more sites are evaluated, the number of sites at which trichloroethylene is found may increase. This information is important; these future sites may be sources of exposure, and exposure to trichloroethylene can be harmful.
|Why a trichloroethylene release can be harmful||
When a contaminant 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. But such a release doesn't always lead to exposure. You can only be exposed to a contaminant when you come in contact with it. That contact-and therefore that exposure-can occur when you breathe, eat, or drink the contaminant, or when it touches your skin.
Even if you're exposed to trichloroethylene, you might not be harmed. Whether you are harmed will depend on such factors as the dose (how much), the duration (how long), and how you are exposed. Harm might also depend on whether you've been exposed to any other chemicals, as well as your age, sex, diet, family traits, lifestyle, and state of health.
This section describes trichloroethylene in detail and how you can be exposed to it.
|What is trichloroethylene?||
Trichloroethylene is a colorless, volatile liquid. Liquid trichloroethylene evaporates quickly into the air. It is nonflammable and has a sweet odor.
|How is trichloroethylene used?||
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. Trichloroethylene has also been used as an extraction solvent for greases, oils, fats, waxes, and tars; by the textile processing industry to scour cotton, wool, and other fabrics; in dry cleaning operations; and as a component of adhesives, lubricants, paints, varnishes, paint strippers, pesticides, and cold metal cleaners.
|Where is trichloroethylene found?||
Trichloroethylene can be released into the air, water, and soil at places where it is produced or used.
This section looks at how trichloroethylene enters your body and potential trichloroethylene health effects found in human and animal studies.
|How trichloroethylene enters your body||
Trichloroethylene can enter your body from the air, water, or soil. You are most likely to be exposed to trichloroethylene by drinking trichloroethylenecontaminated water; you may also be exposed by breathing trichloroethylene released to the air from trichloroethylene-contaminated water. If you work in the degreasing industry or other industry where trichloroethylene is used, you may be exposed by breathing in trichloroethylene-contaminated air or by contacting the chemical with your skin.
|What happens to trichloroethylene in your body||
Once in your blood, your liver changes much of the trichloroethylene into other chemicals. When the body absorbs more trichloroethylene than it can break down quickly, some of the trichloroethylene or its breakdown products can be stored in body fat for a brief period. However, once absorption ceases, trichloroethylene and its breakdown products quickly leave the fat.
|How trichloroethylene leaves your body||
You will quickly breathe out much of the trichloroethylene that reaches your bloodstream; most of the trichloroethylene breakdown products leave your body in the urine within a day.
|Trichloroethylene health effects||
The health effects of trichloroethylene depend on how much trichloroethylene you are exposed to and the length of that exposure. Environmental monitoring data suggest that trichloroethylene levels the public might encounter by direct contact or through air, water, food, or soil, are generally much lower than the levels at which adverse effects are elicited in animal studies. However, some drinking water sources and working environments have been found to contain levels of trichloroethylene that may cause health problems.
|Short-term exposure effects||
Trichloroethylene was once used as an anesthetic for surgery. People who are overexposed to moderate amounts of trichloroethylene may experience headaches, dizziness, and sleepiness; large amounts of trichloroethylene may cause coma and even death. Some people who breathe high levels of trichloroethylene may develop damage to some of the nerves in the face. Other effects seen in people exposed to high levels of trichloroethylene include evidence of nervous system effects related to hearing, seeing, and balance, changes in the rhythm of the heartbeat, liver damage, and evidence of kidney damage. Some people who get concentrated solutions of trichloroethylene on their skin develop rashes.
Relatively short-term exposure of animals to trichloroethylene resulted in harmful effects on the nervous system, liver, respiratory system, kidneys, blood, immune system, heart, and body weight.
|Long-term exposure effects||
Exposure to trichloroethylene in the workplace 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.
Long-term exposure studies in animals have mainly focused on carcinogenicity and relatively insensitive noncancer end points following oral exposure; these studies are not helpful in defining noncancer end points in humans following long-term exposure. However, depressed body weight and evidence of effects on the thymus were reported in one recent study of mice exposed to trichloroethylene via their mothers during gestation and lactation and via the drinking water for up to 12 months thereafter.
|Trichloroethylene and cancer||
There is strong evidence that trichloroethylene can cause kidney cancer in people and some evidence that it causes liver cancer and malignant lymphoma (a blood cancer). Lifetime exposure to trichloroethylene resulted in increased liver cancer in mice and increased kidney cancer in rats at relatively high exposure levels. There is some evidence for trichloroethylene-induced testicular cancer and leukemia in rats and lymphomas and lung tumors in mice.
The National Toxicology Program (NTP) has determined that trichloroethylene is a "known human carcinogen". The EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have determined that trichloroethylene is "carcinogenic to humans."
This section discusses potential health effects of trichloroethylene exposure in humans from when they're first conceived to 18 years of age, and how you might protect against such effects.
|Exposure effects for children||
Trichloroethylene is expected to affect children in the same manner as adults. It is not known whether children are more susceptible than adults to the effects of trichloroethylene.
|What about birth defects?||
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 may have caused effects such as decreased body weight, increased incidences of heart defects, functional or structural changes in the developing nervous system, and effects on the immune system.
If your doctor finds that you have been exposed to significant amounts of trichloroethylene, ask whether your children might also be exposed. Your doctor might need to ask your state health department to investigate.
Exposure to contaminated drinking water should be limited. Trichloroethylene has been detected in some drinking water supplies. For bottled water, consumers should contact the bottler with specific questions on potential contaminants.
|Contaminated groundwater or soil||
If you live near an industrial site where trichloroethylene is produced or is a byproduct or you live near a hazardous waste site where it has been discarded, there may be high levels of trichloroethylene in the water and soil. If you find your home water supply and/or soil to be contaminated with trichloroethylene, consider using a cleaner source of water and limiting contact with soil (for example, through use of a dense ground cover or thick lawn) to reduce exposure to trichloroethylene. By paying careful attention to dust and dirt control in the home (air filters, frequent cleaning), you can reduce family exposure to contaminated dirt. Some children eat a lot of dirt. You should prevent your children from eating dirt. You should discourage your children from putting objects in their mouths. Make sure that they wash their hands frequently and before eating. Discourage your children from putting their hands in their mouths or from other hand-to-mouth activity.
|Check product labels for trichloroethylene||
Trichloroethylene is widely used as a solvent for extraction, waterless drying, and finishing, and as a general purpose solvent in adhesives, lubricants, paints, varnishes, paint strippers, pesticides, and cold metal cleaners. Follow instructions on product labels to minimize exposure to trichloroethylene.
We identify medical tests that can detect whether trichloroethylene is in your body, and we recommend safe toxic-substance practices.
|Trichloroethylene can be measured in blood and urine||
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, partly because exposure to other chemicals can produce byproducts similar to those observed following exposure to trichloroethylene. Because trichloroethylene and its metabolites leave the body fairly rapidly, the tests need to be conducted within a few hours after exposure. Tests for trichloroethylene and its metabolites in the blood or urine require special analytical equipment not readily available at medical facilities.
One way the federal government promotes public health is by regulating toxic substances or recommending ways to handle or to avoid toxic substances.
|The federal government regulates toxic substances||
Regulations are enforceable by law. The U.S. EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are some federal agencies that have adopted toxic substances regulations.
|The federal government recommends safe toxic substance practices||
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have made recommendations about toxic substances. Unlike enforceable regulations, these recommendations are advisory only.
|Toxic substance regulations||
Regulations and recommendations can be expressed as "not-to-exceed" levels; that is, levels of a toxic substance in air, water, soil, or food that are not to exceed a critical value usually based on levels that affect animals; levels are then adjusted to help protect humans. Sometimes these not-to-exceed levels differ among federal organizations. Different organizations use different exposure times (an 8-hour workday or a 24-hour day), different animal studies, or emphasize some factors over others, depending on their mission.
Recommendations and regulations are also updated periodically as more information becomes available. For the most current information, check with the federal agency or organization that issued the regulation or recommendation.
Some regulations and recommendations for trichloroethylene include:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2014 Toxicological Profile for Trichloroethylene (Draft for Public Comment). 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
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-57
Atlanta, GA 30329-4027
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.
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: January 21, 2015
- Page last updated: January 21, 2015
- Content source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry