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Trichloroethene (TCE)

Trichloroethene, also known as trichloroethylene or TCE is a colourless liquid industrial chemical that is used widely in industry for metal cleaning and in the manufacturing of products such as adhesives, lacquers, dyes, perfumes and soaps.

In the past, TCE was also used in many other applications such as removing caffeine from coffee beans in the production of decaffeinated coffee, in dry cleaning and as an anaesthetic for surgery.

If TCE is taken into the body, it is metabolised (broken down) and eliminated from the body within days.In the environment TCE breaks down rapidly in air and surface water but much more slowly in soil and groundwater.

See below for further information on: 

Exposure to TCE

Contamination of soil and groundwater by TCE can be a consequence of past disposal practices and/or spills and leaks from storage tanks at industrial sites.In some cases contaminated groundwater and soil vapour can moved off industrial sites and may be present under residential properties.

Contact, or exposure, can occur if contaminated groundwater is consumed or used in cooking, or used in showers, swimming pools or watering gardens.If sufficient concentrations are present in soil or groundwater, TCE vapours can also penetrate through the soil, building foundations and underground service infrastructure and contaminate the indoor air that we breathe.

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Exposure levels

Guideline levels for TCE in indoor air are based on there being an “excess cancer risk” of 1 in 100,000 people. That is, there should be no more than one “additional cancer case” seen in a population of 100,000 people exposed all day every day for their lifetime (taken to be 70 years).

We specifically refer to "excess cancer risk" and "additional cancer case" because statistics show that in Australia about one in three people will develop cancer before their 85th birthday. This is the background rate and is a result of family history, genetics, chemical and radiation exposure, and other factors. The additional cancer cases at which Guidelines are set are those above this background rate.

The approach of using excess cancer risk to assess risk to the community from exposure to TCE is accepted as a safe and acceptable scientific method for both cancer and non-cancer outcomes.

Health effects

Trichloroethene is associated with a range of adverse health effects.The health effects depend on a number of factors such as how long you have been exposed to the chemical, to what degree or level the chemical is present in air or water, along with how old you are and whether you have any other illnesses.

Much of what is known about the health effects of TCE is based on long-term exposure at high level in workplaces.

Inhaling or ingesting large amounts of TCE over short periods of time may result in dizziness or feeling sleepy. Inhaling moderate amounts may also result in headaches.

TCE exposure may pose a potential human health hazard to the central nervous system, kidney, liver, immune system and male reproductive system.There are some reports in the scientific literature for an increased risk of heart malformations in newborns if pregnant women are exposed to TCE during pregnancy. However, the evidence is weak and there is considerable uncertainty and no scientific consensus on this.

Long term exposure to elevated TCE air levels may increase the risk of developing specific cancers including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, kidney or liver cancers. The risk of getting cancer depends on the amount people are exposed to and for how long.

Reducing your exposure to TCE

Limit the use of TCE containing consumer goods in your household.You may be able to identify whether consumer goods contain TCE by reviewing the ingredient list or obtaining an ingredient list from the manufacturer or distributor of the product.

If you live over a soil or groundwater plume containing TCE, a way to improve air quality in your home quickly may be to ventilate your house by opening windows and doors.Long term measures may include environmental mitigation and remediation.

We also recommend that people do not extract groundwater (bore water) where the groundwater is contaminated with TCE.

Common household containing TCE

Exposure to TCE may occur in the general community, for example it is found in some household products such as correction fluid and paint or spot removers.

As exposures to chemicals occur from many sources in our everyday life, it is important that when there is an opportunity to reduce or prevent exposure, action should be taken.

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What to do if you are concerned about your exposure levels

You are encouraged to discuss any concerns with your regular GP.Your GP can contact Public Health Services for further advice on TCE exposure.

If you would like to inquire whether there is soil and groundwater contamination containing TCE near where you live, please contact the Site Contamination Branch of the Environment Protection Authority by telephoning general enquiries on 8204 2004

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Further information

For further information on TCE, contact SA Health's Scientific Services.

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