Health & Safety Overview of Tetrachloroethylene (PCE, PERC) & Trichloroethylene (TCE) - Banner

Health & Safety Overview of Tetrachloroethylene (PCE, PERC) & Trichloroethylene (TCE)

Tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and Trichloroethylene (TCE) are chlorinated liquid hydrocarbons, primarily used as degreaser agents for the cold cleaning of fabricated metal parts. They serve as general solvents for resins, fats, oils, waxes, rubber, paints, cellulose esters and ethers, and varnishes [1]. In the industry, both chemicals are of occupational concern because of their high toxicity levels and widespread usage; they have recently become the primary pollutants in most of the state and federal Superfund sites [2]. Moreover, traces of these harmful compounds have been found to occur in underground and surface water sources as a result of inappropriate manufacturing, consumption, and disposal practices [3].

Chlorinated solvents are usually difficult to biodegrade, and they pose a significant and continuing threat to the United States’ potable water supplies, as well as the worker’s welfare. Both PCE and TCE have been associated with toxic effects in the kidney and liver, and can also cause depression in the central nervous system, reproductive dysfunction, higher cancer incidence, among other diseases. In this regard, business owners and consumers, who are still employing these compounds, should keep an eye on the latest legislation and potential implications when using the chemicals, as well as identifying available alternatives.

 

What is Tetrachloroethylene?

Tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene (PCE or PERC), is a nonflammable colorless liquid used for dry cleaning operations and as a starting material to synthesize other compounds. It has been associated with mild side effects after short-term exposure such as upper respiratory irritation, reversible mood, dizziness, sleepiness, headaches, and coordination impairment. Likewise, long-term exposure leads to severe adverse reactions such as cognitive damage, kidney & liver diseases, immunotoxicity, reproductive issues, and potential cancer development. As a result, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other international organizations have classified it as likely to be carcinogenic to humans [4].

In the United States, PCE production peaked at 350 million kg in 1980 when it was introduced as a replacement alternative to trichloroethylene (TCE) for metal cleaning, vapor degreasing, textile processing, dry cleaning, and as a chemical precursor [5]. Since then, tetrachloroethylene production has been declining because of its toxic and rapid evaporation attributes, which have made it detectable in ground and surface water sources, air, soil, food, and even breast milk samples. The latest industrial reports indicate that 215 manufacturing companies have been continuously producing close to 65 million lbs. of PCE annually, and 22 other facilities import 26.5 million lbs. of the chemical into the country [6].

Recently, Superfund site investigations have been conducted involving the nearby communities to take robust response actions against tetrachloroethylene contamination. The first water source detection occurred in the 1990s during a routine sampling practice, and the number has been increasing since then with evidence of this substance in nearly 28% of the sites today. The major concerns resulting from inappropriate disposal of hazardous chemicals are the long-term cleanup efforts, leakage to other groundwater sources, and health risks for both humans and animals [7].

 

Tetrachloroethylene (PCE) Toxicity Case Studies 

Multiple case studies about the side effects of tetrachloroethylene (PCE) have been reported throughout the years due to its prevalence in the market. The toxic levels and exposure pathways may change depending on the type of clinical trial that was conducted or public release addressing major contamination evidence. Table 1 presents, in chronological order, the most relevant incidents related to tetrachloroethylene exposure, including the conditions in which they occurred, as well as the average toxic levels for each case.

ACUTE TOXICITY & IRRITATION

Case (Year)

N° of Patients

Symptoms

Job Description

Toxic Levels

1985 [8]

1 child

Somnolence and hyperventilation

Accidental ingestion

30 μg in the blood

1990 [9]

22 males

The visual function was mildly affected by Per exposure, which interfered with the central nerve conduction

Medical experiment volunteers

10 and 50 ppm, during 4 hours for 4 days.

NEUROTOXICITY

Case (Year)

N° of Patients

Symptoms

Job Description

Toxic Levels

2011

[10]

1512 people

Risks of autism spectrum disorders, and development of drug and alcohol consumption

Residents of Cape Cod, Massachusetts towns

Water samples with PCE up to 80 ug/L

2012

[11]

99 pairs of twins

Parkinson’s disease symptoms

World War II Veteran Twins

No info available

2012 [12]

619 participants

Early childhood exposure was found to be associated with long-term visual decrements in adulthood

Residents of Cape Cod, Massachusetts towns

Water samples with PCE up to 80 ug/L

2014

[13]

> 150.000 people from 1975 - 1985

Workers exposed to polluted water were more likely to further develop different cancer types

Marine and Naval personnel at USMC base Camp Lejeune

215 μg/L in drinking water

2015

[14]

50 Employees

Depression of the central nervous system; including dizziness and drowsiness.

Dry-Cleaning

Atmospheric PCE of 7 ppm

KIDNEY TOXICITY

Case (Year)

N° of Patients

Symptoms

Job Description

Toxic Levels

1983 [15]

438 workers

Mild renal tubular lesions rather than glomerular

Dry cleaning shops

10 ppm of PERC

1999 [16]

82 workers

Minor renal tubular damage

Dry cleaning

2.2 - 44.6 mg/m3 PERC

2000 [17]

40 females

PERC induced dose-degrading effects on the kidneys

Ironing shop and dry cleaning

60 – 240 mg/m3 PERC

LIVER TOXICITY

Case (Year)

N° of Patients

Symptoms

Job Description

Toxic Levels

1992 [18]

141 workers

Occupational exposure might cause early hepato-biliary changes

Small laundries and dry cleaning shops

PCE levels of 50 ppm on average

1995 [19]

5 workers

Mild to moderate hepatic parenchymal changes

Dry Cleaning

PCE up to 83 ppm

IMMUNE AND HEMATOLOGICAL TOXICITY

Case (Year)

N° of Patients

Symptoms

Job Description

Toxic Levels

1996 [20]

279 patients

Connective tissue diseases, systemic sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis

Dry cleaning and aircraft industry workers

3899

mg/m3

2003 [21]

660 female workers

Scleroderma-like symptoms

Dry cleaning and aircraft industry

Not specified

2010 [22]

80 adult males

Immunotoxicity leads to allergic diseases and autoimmune reactions

Dry cleaning

PCE up to 265 µg/m3

2015 [23]

175 cases

Primary Sjogren's syndrome (PSS) symptoms

Multiple jobs, with common exposure

Not specified

REPRODUCTIVE & DEVELOPMENTAL TOXICITY

Case (Year)

N° of Patients

Symptoms

Job Description

Toxic Levels

1990 [24]

1117 female patients

Low birth weight, congenital malformations, and spontaneous abortions

Laundry and

dry-cleaning workers

Doses of 2 – 20 hours per week

1991 [25]

1926 pregnant female patients

They had headaches, dizziness, and forgetfulness. Miscarriage risk was double, and triple for congenital anomalies

Household use of solvent-containing products

Doses of 10 hours per week

1991 [26]

34 workers

Subtle effects on sperm quality, with less linearity in sperms swimming paths 

Dry cleaning

Breathing samples of 2.67 µg/m3

2009 [27]

1658 children

risk of congenital anomalies, such as eye, ear irregularities, and oral cleft defects

Households with contaminated water supplies

Water samples with PCE up to 80 μg/L

CARCINOGENICITY STUDIES

Case (Year)

N° of Patients

Symptoms

Job Description

Toxic Levels

2011 [28]

1704 workers

Exposure to PCE was associated with an increased risk of lung, esophagus, and tongue cancer

Dry workers in 4 US cities (San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, and New York)

More than 1 year of occupational exposure

2013 [29]

Children born during 1968 - 1985

Associations between drinking water contaminants and childhood hematopoietic cancers, and neural tube defects (NTDs)

Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune personnel

Maximum peaks of 215 ppm PCE

2014

[30]

> 150.000 people from 1975 - 1985

Workers exposed to polluted water were more likely to further develop different cancer types

Marine and Naval personnel at USMC base Camp Lejeune

215 μg/L in drinking water

2016 [31]

3851 incidents 1999 - 2008

Residents close to sites were at higher risk of having Diffuse large B cell lymphoma (DLBCL)

Residents from a Georgia town

Not specified

2017 [32]

775 female workers

Exposure to PCE may increase the risk of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas in women

Electrical assemblers, printers, welders, cutters, and equipment manufacturing

At least 1 month of continuous exposure

Table 1. Case Studies on Tetrachloroethylene (PCE)

 

What is Trichloroethylene?

Trichloroethylene (TCE) is a volatile organic solvent used in multiple manufacturing industries (e.g., aircraft, spacecraft, electronic) to remove grease from metal parts. This colorless liquid has been associated with negative health effects such as upper respiratory irritation, kidney & liver dysfunction, developmental defects, immunosuppression, neurobehavioral changes, cancer development, among many others. Although TCE can be highly convenient for vapor degreasing of metal parts, governmental entities have listed it as a hazardous chemical substance that could leach into water supplies, feed, and air [33].

Along with Perchloroethylene, Trichloroethylene has also been widely produced and commercialized since the 1920s. On a global scale, roughly 80-90% of TCE production goes exclusively to the degreasing industry, being used in paints, adhesives, varnishes, and lacquer formulations. In the United States, TCE production peaked at 280 million kg in 1970 when it had been used in the food industry for decaffeination; in cosmetics as an extractant; in pesticides for spotting fluids; and even in pharmaceutics as a volatile anesthetic. Industrial working settings are the most usual way to get exposed to trichloroethylene, which has led to serious occupational health concerns[34].

Environmental fate testing shows that TCE can easily penetrate surface soils through volatilization, which makes it likely to migrate into groundwater sources. As a result of its prevalence in the environment, the general population − especially workers − can get exposed via ingestion, inhalation, and contact. Up to 2011, this toxic compound has been identified in more than 760 Superfund sites, and the ATSDR reported that between 9 to 34% of the drinking water supply sources in the country exhibited some TCE contamination [35]. Moreover, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey suggests that nearly 10% of Americans have detectable levels of TCE in their blood [36].

 

Trichloroethylene (TCE) Toxicity Case Studies 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has consistently released studies about the hazards that TCE can impose on humans, animals, and the environment. These reviews classify all health hazards in different categories according to the human tissues that are being or could be affected. Table 2 presents, in chronological order, the most relevant incidents related to trichloroethylene exposure, including the conditions in which they occurred, as well as the average levels of the compound for each case.

 

NEUROTOXICITY

Case (Year)

N° of Patients

Symptoms

Job Description

Toxic Levels

1982 [37]

11 workers

Symptoms of trigeminal nerve impairment

Industrial workers

Not specified

1990 [38]

2 patients

Mild to moderate cognitive, and psychomotor impairments

Mixing metals in an electronics company

High but not specified

1999 [39]

4041 people

Links between TCE and speech, and hearing impairment

Contaminated drinking water

50 – 500 ppb

2002 [40]

236 residents

Neurobehavioral impairments, an elevated profile of mood state scores, and excessive symptom frequencies

Living close to electronic manufacturing plants

1 – 100 ppm

2003 [41]

143 residents

Long-term exposure to TCE is associated with neurobehavioral deficits

Contaminated municipal water supply

TCE >15 ppb

KIDNEY TOXICITY

Case (Year)

N° of Patients

Symptoms

Job Description

Toxic Levels

1993 [42]

29 workers

Slight and severe tubular damage in the kidneys

Metal manufacturing

TCE < 50 mg/m3

1999 [43]

39 workers

TRI caused persistent changes to the tubular system of the kidney

Cardboard factory workers

TCE is around 500 ppm

2004 [44]

70 workers

High risk of kidney damage at concentrations >250 ppm

Hospital and administrative staff

TCE 250 ppm

LIVER TOXICITY

Case (Year)

N° of Patients

Symptoms

Job Description

Toxic Levels

2003 [45]

155 male patients

The link between exposure and male liver cancer symptoms

Exposure to contaminated soil and groundwater

TCE up to 1100 mg/kg

2010 [46]

1 male patient

Experienced jaundice, fever, red sore eyes, and widespread rashes

Automated degreasing machines

22 mg/L at work

IMMUNE AND HEMATOLOGICAL TOXICITY

Case (Year)

N° of Patients

Symptoms

Job Description

Toxic Levels

2003 [47]

347 Danish companies

High risk to develop symptoms of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Iron and metal dry cleaning

75 – 318 mg/m3 in air

2008 [48]

About 14500 workers

Positive associations with several types of cancer (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma)

Aircraft maintenance workers

Not specified

2012 [49]

80 people exposed

A decline in peripheral blood cell counts (lymphocytes, B cells, and CD4+ T cells)

Metal degreasing and contaminated groundwater

Both low TCE <12ppm and high ≥12ppm

REPRODUCTIVE & DEVELOPMENTAL TOXICITY

Case (Year)

N° of Patients

Symptoms

Job Description

Toxic Levels

1973 [50]

184 women

Increase in amenorrhea

Assembling small electrical parts

Mean TCE of 200 mg/m3

1978 [51]

A 42-year-old man

Impotence and gynecomastia

Aircraft mechanic

Not reported

1995 [52]

197 women

Reduced incidence of fecundability in high exposure

Industrial hygienists

High but not specified

1996 [53]

13 male workers

A low percentage of normal sperm morphology

Electronic factory, metal degreasing

Mean TCE of 30 ppm

2001 [54]

75 men and 71 women

Altered libido, and increase in abnormal menstrual cycle

Contaminated groundwater

Not specified

CARCINOGENICITY STUDIES

Case (Year)

N° of Patients

Symptoms

Job Description

Toxic Levels

1995 [55]

169 men

Over prolonged exposure time may lead to renal tumors

Cardboard factory

Not reported

1995 [56]

1391 women

Significant increase in cervix uteri, lymphatic, and hematopoietic cancers

Finnish maintenance workers

Not specified

1998 [57]

14457 workers

Moderate risk of breast cancer

Aircraft maintenance

TCE < 15 ppm

2003 [58]

40049 workers

Elevated risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in offspring’s

Blue-collar worker

TCE of 58 mg/L in urine

2005 [59]

Close to 54500 cases

The solvent was positively associated with breast cancer in women and men

Residents in Texas

Not reported

2005 [60]

6107 male workers

Likely to develop cancer of the lungs, melanoma, esophagus, kidney, and stomach

Aerospace company workers

Not specified

2007 [61]

276 men

TCE exposure showed a positive relation with prostate cancer

Aerospace and radiation workers

Not specified

2008 [62]

40647 female workers

Childhood leukemia is related to mothers exposed during pregnancies

Electronics factory

Not specified

Table 2. Case Studies on Trichloroethylene (TCE)

 

Safety Regulations for PCE and TCE

As a response to the numerous human studies on PCE and TCE, many organizations have set recommendations addressing their usage. The most relevant national and international guidelines, regulations, and advisories regarding tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene are summarized in Table 3. The values represent the threshold levels that employers, importers, recyclers, and sellers should follow to avoid legal sanctions and protect the public and workers from adverse health effects from exposure. For the EPA and DOE guidelines, each consecutive AEGL and PAC number is associated with a progressively severe effect that involves a higher exposure level to the chemicals.

REGULATION

TETRACHLOROETHYLENE

TRICHLOROETHYLENE

NATIONAL

OSHA

Permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 100 -200 ppm, and a 300 ppm max peak (< 5min each 3h)

Permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 100 -200 ppm, and a 300 ppm max peak (< 5min each 2h)

NIOSH

Exposure should be minimized as much as possible

Recommended exposure limit (REL) of 2 ppm/h or 25 ppm (10h TWA)

EPA

Hazardous Pollutant

YES

YES

AEGL-1

35 ppm (8 hours)

77 ppm (8 hours)

AEGL-2

81 ppm (8 hours)

240 ppm (8 hours)

AEGL-3

410 ppm (8 hours)

970 ppm (8 hours)

DOE

PAC 1

35 ppm

130 ppm

PAC 2

230 ppm

450 ppm

PAC 3

1200 ppm

3800 ppm

ACGIH

Confirmed animal carcinogenic with unknown relevance to humans

Suspected human carcinogen

INTERNATIONAL

IARC

Probably carcinogenic to humans

Carcinogenic to humans

WHO

Air

0.25 mg/m3

2.3 μg/m

Drinking water

0.04 mg/L

0.02 mg/L

Table 3. Regulations and guidelines applicable to tetrachloroethylene [63] and trichloroethylene [64]

In the upcoming years, these regulations could significantly alter the production, usage, transport, storage, and disposal of cleaning products that contain chlorinated chemicals. Official statements about maximal levels permitted in food, water, plants, atmosphere, soil, and animal and human tissues are continuously modified and may not reflect the regulatory status for the chemicals in the future. Companies and customers who employ PCE and TCE for their daily operations should pay special attention to the general discontinuation, management efforts, and feasible alternatives in the market.

 

Alternatives to Tetrachloroethylene- and Trichloroethylene-Based Degreasers

Tetrachloroethylene- and Trichloroethylene-based degreasers have been popular for industrial cleaning applications because they quickly dissolve oils and greases, evaporate quickly, and have a relatively low cost. As regulations on these compounds continue to tighten on the path to a full ban, Chemtronics continues to engineer alternatives with all the advantages of PCE and TCE, but without the harmful health effects.

Chemtronics Electro-Wash Tri-V Precision Cleaner and Max-Kleen Tri-V Heavy-duty Degreaser are nonflammable cleaners that quickly remove flux, grease, oils, dirt, dust, and other contaminants from electronic components, metal parts, tools, and assemblies. They remove all types of oil and grease while evaporating quickly and leaving no residues. Tri-V nPB replacement chemistry is an innovative chemistry that does not contain n-propyl bromide, TCE, hazardous air pollutants, or ozone-depleting compounds.

For more information, contact your Chemtronics application specialist at 678-928-6534 or askchemtronics@chemtronics.com.

 



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