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Trichloroethylene ( TCE) is a clear, colorless liquid with a sweet, chloroform-like odor. Long used in the 20th century in many industries, TCE is now considered a hazardous substance. Its production, transport, storage, and use are strictly controlled because of growing recognition and evidence that TCE is dangerous and even carcinogenic.
TCE has many synonyms: Acetylene trichloride, ethylene trichloride, ethinyl trichloride, trichloroethene, and colloquially “trike” and just “tri.” Its chemical formula is CICH=CCl2. It was widely produced after Word War I and was used in numerous ways in the following decades: In the food industry, it helped extract vegetable oils from plants such as soy and coconut and prepare flavoring extracts from spices; in the mid-20th century, it was also used as a dry cleaning agent, an industrial solvent to remove grease from metal parts, a refrigerant, a fumigant, a basic component in the pharmaceutical industry, and even in hospitals as a mild gas anesthetic. These direct uses of TCE stopped in the 1970s and 1980s when awareness of its toxicity was raised, together with concerns of its carcinogenic potential. Presently, TCE is only found as an ingredient in adhesives, paint removers, and typewriter correction fluids.
Although TCE does not occur naturally, because of past use and careless disposal it can be now found in the environment, especially in the soil and groundwater. A third of the drinking water supply sources tested in the United States are said to have some slight TCE contamination. Direct exposure to TCE is unsafe and possibly lethal; its effects on health include skin irritation, headache, and dizziness, lack of coordination, hypotension, nausea, stupor, coma, and even death. Ingestion, inhalation, and skin contact require immediate medical treatment. Hazards include breathing air contaminated through household products containing TCE or swimming in contaminated water.
TCE is also regarded as particularly dangerous because of growing medical evidence, from both animal research and human population studies, that it can cause cancer. In its 11th report on carcinogens in 2005, the National Toxicology Program determined that TCE is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Other agencies concur: The International Agency for Research on Cancer has also concluded that TCE is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has laid out particular guidelines to deal with exposure to TCE. In 2006, a report from the National Academies’ National Research Council stressed that enough information exists for the Environmental Protection Agency to complete a credible human health risk assessment, although more research is still needed to improve understanding of precisely how TCE causes cancer and other adverse health effects.
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Managing Hazardous Materials Inci Volume III-Medical Management Guidelines for Acute Chemical Exposures: Trichloroethylene TCE (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003);
- Ginger L. Gist and Jeanne R. Burg, “Trichloroethylene: A Review of the Literature From a Health Effects Perspective,” Toxicology and Industrial Health (v.11/3, 1995);
- National Academy of Sciences, Assessing Human Health Risks of Trichloroethylene: Key Scientific Issues (National Academies Press, 2006);
- National Toxicology Program “Trichloroethylene,” Report on Carcinogens, Eleventh Edition (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005).