Carbon Tetrachloride



Carbon tetrachloride is a clear liquid that evaporates very easily. Most carbon tetrachloride that escapes to the environment is therefore found as a gas. Carbon tetrachloride does not easily burn. Carbon tetrachloride has a sweet odor, and most people can begin to smell it in air when the concentration reaches 10 parts carbon tetrachloride per million parts of air (ppm). It is not known whether people can taste it or, if they can, at what level.

Carbon tetrachloride does not occur naturally but has been produced in large quantities to make refrigeration fluid and propellants for aerosol cans. Since many refrigerants and aerosol propellants have been found to affect the earth's ozone layer, the production of these chemicals is being phased out. Consequently, the manufacture and use of carbon tetrachloride will probably decline a great deal in the future.

In the past, carbon tetrachloride was widely used as a cleaning fluid, in industry and dry cleaning establishments as a degreasing agent, and in households as a spot remover for clothing, furniture, and carpeting. Carbon tetrachloride was also used in fire extinguishers and as a fumigant to kill insects in grain. Most of these uses were discontinued in the mid-1960s. Until recently, carbon tetrachloride was used as a pesticide, but this was stopped in 1986.

Structural diagram: National Institutes of Health

Fate & Transport

Because carbon tetrachloride evaporates easily, most of the compound released to the environment during its production and use reaches the air, where it is found mainly as a gas. In can remain in air for several years before it is broken down to other chemicals. Small amounts of carbon tetrachloride are found in surface water. Because it evaporates easily, much of it will move from surface water in to the air within a few days or weeks. However, it may be trapped in groundwater for longer periods. Carbon tetrachloride is not expected to stick to soil particles. If spilled onto the ground, much of it will evaporate to the air. Some of it may also go in to groundwater, where it can remain for months before it is broken down to other chemicals. It is not expected to build up in fish. We do not know if it builds up in plants.

Exposure Pathways

Very low background levels of carbon tetrachloride are found in air, water, and soil because of past and present releases. Concentrations in air of 0.1 part carbon tetrachloride per billion parts of air (ppb) are common around the world, with somewhat higher levels often found (0.2-0.6 ppb) in cities. Carbon tetrachloride is also found in some drinking water supplies, usually at concentrations less than 0.5 ppb. Exposure to levels of carbon tetrachloride higher than these typical "background" levels is likely to occur only at specific industrial locations where carbon tetrachloride is still used or near chemical waste sites where emissions into air, water, or soil are not properly controlled. Exposure at such sites could occur by breathing carbon tetrachloride present in the air, by drinking water contaminated with carbon tetrachloride, or by getting soil contaminated with carbon tetrachloride on the skin. Young children may also be exposed if they eat soil that contains carbon tetrachloride. Carbon tetrachloride has been found in water or soil at about 22 percent of the waste sites investigated under Superfund, at concentrations ranging from less than 50 to over 1,000 ppb.

People who work with carbon tetrachloride are likely to receive the greatest exposure to the compound. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that 58,208 workers are potentially exposed to carbon tetrachloride in the United States. The average daily intake of carbon tetrachloride for the general population is estimated to be 0.1 microgram (ug). The estimated average daily amount that the general population may drink in water is 0.01 ug.


Carbon tetrachloride can enter your body through your lungs if you breathe air containing carbon tetrachloride, or through your stomach and intestines if you swallow food or water containing carbon tetrachloride. Carbon tetrachloride can also pass through the skin into the body. When you inhale carbon tetrachloride, over 30-40 percent of what you inhale enters your body, where most of it temporarily accumulates in body fat. Some can enter the kidney, liver, brain, lungs, and skeletal muscle. When you drink water contaminated with carbon tetrachloride about 85-91 percent of it can enter your body. Much of the compound that enters your body when you breathe it or drink water contaminated with it leaves your body quickly, and a lot of it can be found in your breath within a few hours. Animal studies indicated that under differing conditions, 34-75 percent of carbon tetrachloride is excreted in expired air, 20-62 percent is excreted in feces, and only low amounts are excreted in the urine. Animal studies also suggest that it may take weeks for the remainder of the compound in the body to be eliminated, especially that which has entered the body fat. Most of the carbon tetrachloride is eliminated from your body unchanged, but some may change to other chemicals (for example, chloroform, hexachloroethane, and carbon dioxide). Chloroform and hexachloroethane may themselves cause harmful effects.

Health Effects

Most information on the health effects of carbon tetrachloride in humans comes from cases where people have been exposed to relatively high levels of carbon tetrachloride, either only once or for a short period of time. Experiments have not been performed on the effects of long-term exposure of humans to low levels of carbon tetrachloride, so the human health effects of such exposures are not known.

The liver is especially sensitive to carbon tetrachloride. In mild cases, the liver becomes swollen and tender, and fat builds up inside the organ. In severe cases, liver cells may be damaged or destroyed, leading to a decrease in liver function. Such effects are usually reversible if exposure is not too high or too long.

The kidney is also sensitive to carbon tetrachloride. Less urine may be formed, leading to a buildup of water in the body (especially in the lungs) and buildup of waste products in the blood. Kidney failure often was the main cause of death in people who died after very high exposure to carbon tetrachloride.

Fortunately, if injuries to the liver and kidney are not too severe, these effects disappear after exposure stops. This is because both organs can repair damaged cells and replace dead cells and associated materials. Function usually returns to normal within a few days or weeks after exposure.

After exposure to high levels of carbon tetrachloride, the nervous system, including the brain, is affected. Such exposure can be fatal. The immediate effects are usually signs of intoxication, including headache, dizziness, and sleepiness perhaps accompanied by nausea and vomiting. These effects usually disappear within a day or two after exposure stops. In severe cases, stupor or even coma can result, and permanent damage to nerve cells can occur.

Carbon tetrachloride also causes effects on othre tissues of the body, but these are not usually as common or important as the effects on the liver, kidney, and brain. Limited human studies suggest that drinking water exposure to carbon tetrachloride might possibly be related to certain birth defects, low birthweight, and small size at birth. Information from animal studies indicates that carbon tetrachloride does not cause birth defects, but might decrease the survival rate of newborn animals.

Studies in animals have shown that carbon tetrachloride given by mouth can increase the frequency of liver tumors in some species. Studies have not been performed to determine if breathing carbon tetrachloride causes tumors in animals, or whether swallowing or breathing carbon tetrachloride causes tumors in humans, but it should be assumed that carbon tetrachloride could produce cancer. 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. The EPA has determined that carbon tetrachloride is a probable human carcinogen.

Many reported cases of carbon tetrachloride toxicity are associated with drinking alcohol. The frequent drinking of alcoholic beverages increases the danger from carbon tetrachloride exposure.

Information excerpted from:

Toxicological Profile for Carbon Tetrachloride May 1994 Update

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services