Tetrachloroethylene (PCE)

Also known as: Perchloroethylene, Perc, PCE, PerSec, Tetravec
Chemical reference number (CAS): 127-18-4

Tetrachloroethylene (PCE) is a nonflammable, liquid solvent widely used in dry cleaning, wood processing, fabric manufacturing, and metal degreasing. In homes, it may be found in suede protectors, paint removers, furniture stripper, water repellents, silicone lubricants, spot removers, glues, and wood cleaners. PCE evaporates slowly at room temperature and has a sweet, ether-like odor.

When PCE is improperly disposed of or spilled, most of it will evaporate into the air. The rest will seep into the soil where it may mix with groundwater and contaminate water supplies.

Exposure Information

People are most often exposed to PCE when they use it in their work, when cleaning or doing hobbies.

PCE evaporates into the air. People are commonly exposed to PCE by breathing air containing its vapors. PCE can contaminate home air when people use cleaning solvents or other products. Exposure can also occur when using contaminated water to shower, do laundry, or perform other household chores. People can be exposed when using contaminated water for drinking and preparing food.

Small amounts of PCE can pass through the skin when people handle the chemical, contaminated soil, or bathe in contaminated water.

Standards

No standards exist for regulating the amount of PCE allowed in the air of homes. However, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has set a residential indoor air action level for PCE at 6 parts per billion by volume (ppbv). The action level is considered to be protective of public health. Breathing PCE for a lifetime at 6 ppbv is very unlikely to be harmful to people. If PCE concentrations in air are above the action level, we recommend taking action to halt exposure.

Most people can smell PCE when the level reaches 1,000 ppbv. If you can smell the chemical, the level is too high to be safe.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources regulates the amount of PCE that can be released into outdoor ambient air by industries.

The state and federal drinking water standards for PCE are both set at 5 parts per billion (ppb). We suggest you stop drinking water containing more than 5 ppb. If levels of PCE are above 70 ppb, you may need to avoid washing, bathing, or using the water for other purposes as well. Contact your local public health department for more information specific to your situation.

Health Effects

Everyone's Reaction is Different

A person's reaction to chemicals depends on several things, including individual health, heredity, previous exposure to chemicals including medicines, and personal habits such as smoking or drinking. It’s also important to consider the length of exposure to the chemical, the amount of chemical exposure, and whether the chemical was inhaled, touched, or eaten.

Some workplace jobs and certain home projects can produce levels of PCE high enough to cause health effects. The following symptoms may occur immediately or shortly after exposure to high levels:

  • Breathing air containing more than 100 ppm (or 100,000 ppbv) of PCE may cause dizziness, headache, sleepiness, confusion, nausea and difficulty speaking and walking.
  • Direct contact with PCE can irritate skin or eyes.
  • Swallowing PCE can cause mental confusion and possible loss of consciousness.

The following health effects can occur after several years of exposure to low levels of PCE:

  • PCE is shown to cause liver cancer, kidney cancer, and leukemia in laboratory animals.
  • Liver and kidney damage has been noticed among exposed workers.
  • When a mother becomes sick from exposure to PCE, the development of her fetus may also be affected. Pregnant women should avoid contact with PCE (tetrachloroethylene).

PCE can be detected in the breath, blood, and urine of people who have recently been exposed to high levels. These tests require special equipment that most doctors' offices do not have, and the test results may not predict what health effects will develop. Liver and kidney function tests may be helpful in determining damage from PCE exposure.

Seek medical advice if you have any symptoms that you think may be related to chemical exposure.

Last Revised: October 7, 2019

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