Smarter Living: Chemical Index

Trichloroethylene (TCE) is used as a solvent and degreaser and is a common ingredient in many household products like paints, adhesives and spot removers. A problem air and water pollutant, TCE is considered to be "highly likely to produce cancer in humans" by the National Academy of Sciences.

Health Concerns

TCE is a volatile organic compound, meaning it evaporates quickly and easily into the air. Breathing small amounts of TCE can irritate the eyes and throat, cause headaches, dizziness and difficulty concentrating. Over the long term, it can cause nervous system, kidney and liver damage.

Drinking water contaminated with small amounts of TCE over a length of time may cause liver and kidney damage, impaired immune system function and possibly birth defects. In animal studies, exposure to TCE has been linked to liver, kidney and lung cancer. The EPA draft carcinogenicity assessments for TCE from 2001 and 2009 conclude that it is “highly likely to produce cancer in humans.”

Personal Exposure

Trichloroethylene is used in industrial solvents and degreasers as well as household products such as correction fluids, paints, paint removers, adhesives, rug cleaners, metal cleaners and spot removers.

People can be exposed to TCE by breathing contaminated air at home or in the workplace; by drinking, swimming or showering in contaminated water; or through contact with contaminated soil. Industrial emissions of TCE stem mostly from metal degreasing plants and steel pipe and tube manufacturing. TCE has been detected in groundwater and surface water, as well as in the soil of hundreds of hazardous waste sites.

Stay Safe

Consumers and industrial users can reduce TCE contamination by switching to less toxic products.

Consumers should:

  • Check the labels on items such as paint thinners and spot removers and avoid using household products that contain TCE.
  • Use products labeled “low-VOC” and follow all manufacturer’s directions. (VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are a category of chemicals that include TCE.)
  • Make sure you’re working in a well-ventilated space, if you are using a product that contains TCE.

Industrial users should:

  • Look for cleaners that can replace many industrial uses of TCE, including neutral and alkaline water-based and bio-based products.

Take Action

Consumers and industrial users can do only so much to protect themselves from harmful exposures to unsafe chemicals like TCE. Congress must act to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and require the chemical industry to substantially reduce people's exposure to chemicals of high concern like TCE. Contact your Congressperson and get them to support reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act in order to keep the public safe. To learn more, click here.

Learn More

Assessing the Human Health Risks of Tricholoroethylene: Key Scientific Issues. National Academies Press, 500 Fifth Street, NW, Washington, D.C.

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. 1997. Toxicological Profile for Trichloroethylene.

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. 2009. Summary of the water contamination situation at Camp Lejeune.

Pellizzari ED, et al. 1982. Purgeable organic compounds in mother’s milk. Bull Environ Contam Toxicol 28:322-328.

Toxics Use Reduction Institute. Cleaner Solutions Database.

12TH Report on Carcinogens. National Toxicology Program.

U.S.Environmental Protection Agency. TEACH chemical summary on TCE. 2007.

U.S. EPA. Trichloroethylene Health Risk Assessment: Synthesis And Characterization (External Review Draft). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, National Center for Environmental Assessment, Washington Office, Washington, DC, EPA/600/P-01/002A, 2001.

Read NRDC's factsheet on trichloroethylene.

Label Lookup: Paints

NRDC Protecting People from Unsafe Chemicals

last revised 12/27/2011

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