What is Tetrachloroethene?

Tetrachloroethene is a synthetic chemical. It is a liquid at room temperature, but evaporates readily. It does not burn, but if subjected to flame will decompose into hydrogen chloride and phosgene. Synonyms for tetrachloroethene include tetrachloroethylene, perchloroethylene, perc, PCE, perclene, and perchlor. [1,3]

Structural diagram: National Institutes of Health

Uses of Tetrachloroethene

Major uses for tetrachloroethene include dry cleaning, cleaning oil and grease from metal parts, and making other chemicals. Products that may contain tetrachloroethene include auto brake quieters and cleaners, suede protectors, water repellants, silicone lubricants, belt lubricants and dressings, specialized aerosol cleaners, ignition wire driers, fabric finishers, spot removers, adhesives, and wood cleaners. Tetrachloroethene was used in the past as a medicine to eliminate worms in humans, but safer and more effective drugs are now available.

Tetrachloroethene in the Environment

Humans can be exposed to tetrachloroethene from environmental, consumer product, and occupational sources. Because tetrachloroethene evaporates quickly, the most common exposure to tetrachloroethene comes from breathing air containing it. This is certainly true for individuals who work with the chemical. Tetrachloroethene may also enter the body through drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food. Because tetrachloroethene does not pass through the skin to any significant extent, entry into the body by this path is of minimal concern, although skin irritation may result from repeated or prolonged contact with the undiluted liquid. Scientific reports indicate that tetrachloroethene is present (and may in fact be concentrated) in the breast milk of mothers who have been exposed to the chemical.

Health Effects of Tetrachloroethene

The NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards [3] lists the following symptoms related to tetrachloroethene exposure:

  • Irritation of the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and/or respiratory system

  • Nausea

  • Flushed face and/or neck

  • Dizziness and/or lack of coordination

  • Headache and/or drowsiness

  • Skin redness

  • Liver damage

  • NIOSH also lists tetrachloroethene as a potential occupational carcinogen. [3]

    When checked on 7 October 2015, U.S. EPA's Integrated Risk Information System [4] stated that tetrachloroethene is "likely to be carcinogenic in humans by all routes of exposure." When checked on 7 October 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer [2] classified tetrachloroethene as "probably carcinogenic to humans."


    [1] "Draft Toxicological Profile for Tetrachloroethylene October 2014", published by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services

    [2] International Agency for Research on Cancer

    [3] NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards, published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

    [4] Integrated Risk Information System, published by the United States Environmental Protection Agency