The largest user of tetrachloroethylene is the dry cleaning industry. It is a large percentage of all dry cleaning fluid used. Textile mills, vapour degreasers and metal cleaning operations, and rubber coatings also use tetrachloroethylene. It can be added to solvent soaps, printing inks, adhesives, sealants, polishes, lubricants and silicones.
Substance name: Tetrachloroethylene
CASR number: 127-18-4
Molecular formula: C2Cl4
Synonyms: Perchloroethylene; PERK; PERC; Ethylene tetrachloride; tetrachloroethene; 1,1,2,2-tetrachloroethylene; carbon dichloride; perchlor; tetrachloroethane; carbon bichloride; perk
Tetrachloroethylene is a colourless liquid solvent. Although it is a liquid at room temperature, some will evaporate giving a sweet ether like odour.
Melting Point: -22.3°C
Boiling Point: 121.1°C
Specific Gravity: 1.623
Vapour Density: 5.8
Tetrachloroethylene is nonflammable and mostly insoluble in water.
The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) holds data for all sources of Tetrachloroethylene in Australia.
In high concentrations, in air, with closed or poorly ventilated areas, single exposures to tetrachloroethylene may cause central nervous system effects leading to dizziness, headache, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty in speaking or walking, and possibly unconsciousness and death. It is a narcotic at high levels. Adverse liver and kidney effects have been observed in workers that had long term exposure to tetrachloroethylene. It will also defat the skin causing irritation and dryness. Worksafe Australia reports tetrachloroethylene is a 'suspected carcinogen'.
Entering the body
Tetrachloroethylene evaporates quickly and so the most common exposure is from breathing air containing it. It may also enter the body if we eat or drink food or water that has been contaminated. It does not pass through the skin.
Workers in the industries that use or produce tetrachloroethylene are at risk of exposure. Consumers can be exposed to tetrachloroethylene by exposure to air from production and processing facilities using tetrachloroethylene, or drinking water from contaminated water. Consumers may also be exposed to tetrachloroethylene when using consumer products containing tetrachloroethylene, or by spending time in dry cleaning facilities using tetrachloroethylene or by bringing dry cleaned clothes into their homes.
Workplace exposure standards
Safe Work Australia sets the workplace exposure standard for tetrachloroethylene through the workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants:
- Maximum eight hour time weighted average (TWA): 50 parts per million (340 mg/m3)
- Maximum short term exposure limit (STEL): 150 parts per million (1020 mg/m3)
These standards are only appropriate for use in workplaces and are not limited to any specific industry or operation. Make sure you understand how to interpret the standards before you use them.
Drinking water guidelines
The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines include the following guidelines for acceptable water quality:
- Maximum of 0.05 milligrams per litre of water for health purposes
Tetrachloroethylene will exist as a gas if released to the atmosphere. It dissolves only slightly when mixed with water. It also evaporates from soil and water when they are exposed to the air. In the air it is reacted into other chemicals, in several weeks. It has moderate acute (short-term) toxicity on aquatic life. It has moderate chronic (long-term) toxicity to aquatic life. Chronic and acute effects on plants, birds or land animals have not been determined, but appear to be low. Tetrachloroethylene does bioaccumulate to a limited extent. The concentration of tetrachloroethylene in the tissues of fish are expected to be somewhat higher than the concentration of tetrachloroethylene in the water from which the fish was taken.
Entering the environment
Industrial emissions of tetrachloroethylene can produce elevated concentrations in the atmosphere around the source. Most of the releases are to the air, releases to the soil and water quickly evaporate to the air. Since it does not bind to soil well, tetrachloroethylene that makes its way into the ground, and does not evaporate may move through the ground and enter groundwater (bore water). Tetrachloroethylene is also transported on clothes that have recently been to the dry cleaners.
Where it ends up
Tetrachloroethylene enters the air during production, use and transporting it. In the air it will break down into other chemicals (phosgene, a toxic chemical and chloroacetylchlorides) in a few weeks to a few months. Tetrachloroethylene and its products of degradation contribute to photochemical smog. Although most of the tetrachloroethylene released is to the air, when released to the soil it will either evaporate or leach into the ground water (bores). It will also quickly evaporate if released to surface water. In the soil and water bacteria will break it down, very slowly. In the soil and subsurface water it may last for months to years.
No national guidelines.
Sources of emissions
The primary sources of tetrachloroethylene emissions are the industries that manufacture it or use it in production. Some of the industries that use it in production are dry cleaners, the chemical industry, rubber manufacturers, heavy equipment manufacturing (degreasing), electroplating facilities (degreasing), pulp and paper manufacture (for de-inking paper), the manufacturers of inks. These are emissions to the air unless there is a spill.
Diffuse sources, and industry sources included in diffuse emissions data
Other possible emitters of Tetrachloroethylene are degreasing operations, paint, varnish and lacquer removal, and consumer products containing Tetrachloroethylene. These are emissions to the air unless there is a spill.
Tetrachloroethylene does not occur naturally in the environment.
No major mobile sources, although it is possible to have emissions from clothes being transported from the dry cleaners.
Aerosol paints, agricultural chemicals, automotive chemicals, furniture polish and cleaners, hard surface cleaners, rug carpet and upholstery cleaners, lubricating greases and oils, paint and varnish removers and thinners, textile finishes, typewriter correction fluids and waterproofing compounds.
Sources used in preparing this information
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (1998), Public Health Statement: Tetrachloroethylene) (accessed, May, 1999)
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (1998), ToxFAQs: Tetrachloroethylene (accessed, May, 1999)
- CalEPA Air Resources Board Toxic Air Contaminant Summary Tetrachloroethylene (accessed, May, 1999)
- ChemFinder WebServer Project (1995), Tetrachloroethylene (accessed, May, 1999)
- Cornell University, Planning Design and Construction, MSDS, Tetrachloroethylene (accessed, May, 1999)
- Environmental Defense Fund (1998), Tetrachloroethylene: The Chemical Scorecard: (accessed, May, 1999)
- Environmental Health Center, a division of the National Safety Council, Environment Writer – Chemical Backgrounders Tetrachloroethylene (C2Cl4) (July, 1997) (accessed, May, 1999)
- National Environment Protection Council (1998a), National Environment Protection Measure for the National Pollutant Inventory (accessed, May, 1999)
- New Jersey Department of Health, Right to Know Program (1986), TRIFacts, Tetrachloroethylene (accessed, May, 1999)
- NTP Chemical Repository, Radian Corporation, Tetrachloroethylene (AUGUST 29, 1991) (accessed, May, 1999)
- Technical Advisory Panel (1999), Final Report to the National Environment Protection Council.
- US Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, (May 1998), Chemical Summary for: Perchloroethylene (accessed, May, 1999)
- US Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, (May 1998), Chemicals in the environment: Perchloroethylene (accessed, May, 1999)
- US Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, (May 1998), United Air Toxics Website Perchloroethylene (accessed, May, 1999)
- US Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, (December, 1998), Consumer Fact Sheet on: Tetrachloroethylene (accessed, May, 1999)
- US Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, (December, 1998), Technical Fact Sheet on: Tetrachloroethylene (accessed, May, 1999)
- Worksafe Australia (1996), Hazardous Substance Tetrachloroethylene (accessed, May, 1999)
- Safe Work Australia, Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants, accessed March 2019.
- National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (2011) - Updated October 2017, accessed May 2018.