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Trichloroethylene is a man-made chemical that does not occur naturally in the environment. The clear, colorless, nonflammable liquid evaporates quickly and has a sweet chloroform-like scent. The chemical is used primarily as a large volume degreasing agent for metal and electronic parts. It also has found use as an extractant for oils, waxes, and fats, a solvent for cellulose esters and ethers, a dry cleaning fluid, refrigerant and heat exchange fluid, fumigant, carrier agent in paints and adhesives, a scourant for textiles, and as a feedstock for manufacturing organic chemicals. In homes, trichloroethylene can be found in typewriter correction fluid, paint, spot removers, carpet-cleaning fluids, metal cleaners, and varnishes. Trichloroethylene also is known as trichloroethene, and is commonly referred to as TCE.
Regulation of TCE by the EPA began in the 1980s. It is regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which sets Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for TCE. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets a limit for exposure to TCE in workplace air.
Industrial processes are the main sources of TCE in the environment. It is commonly found in air and water. Once it is released into the air, TCE will break down within a week or less. TCE breaks down more slowly in surface water and soil than in air, and it can pass through the soil into underground water. Most TCE in air comes from metal degreasing activities associated with tool and automobile production. TCE also can enter ground water and surface water from industrial discharges or from improper disposal of industrial wastes at landfills. TCE has been found in many drinking water supplies in the United States.
The health effects from TCE differ depending on the amount of TCE to which a person is exposed and how long the exposure lasts. Levels of TCE in the normal environment generally are well below levels of those in the workplace. TCE exposure can be associated with several adverse health effects, including neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity, developmental toxicity, liver toxicity, kidney toxicity, endocrine effects, and several forms of cancer.
Wastewater or municipal water supply treatment systems that rely on coagulation, sedimentation, precipitative softening, filtration, and chlorination are ineffective for reducing concentrations of TCE to nonhazardous levels. Other methods are required for remediation of water contaminated with TCE if the water is to be used for human consumption. TCE usually is remediated through pump and treat, using either air stripping or granular activated carbon, but there are many innovative cleanup methods—physical, chemical, thermal, and biological—that have been applied successfully to remove TCE from soil and ground water or to convert it into nonhazardous compounds.
Groundwater Information Sheet: Trichloroethene (TCE)
California State Water Resources Control Board, 9 pp, 2009.
This brief groundwater information sheet provides general information (fate and transport, health effects, testing and remediation methods) and identifies where high levels of the compound are found in California. The information is pulled from a variety of sources, and a bibliography is provided.
Information on Toxic Chemicals: Trichloroethylene
Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services. 2 pp, 2000.
Draft Toxicological Profile for Trichloroethylene.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), 2014.
Groundwater Chemicals Desk Reference
John Montgomery and Linda Welkom, 640 pp, 1991.