Tetrachloroethene (PCE)

Tetrachloroethene, also known as tetrachloroethylene, perchloroethene or PCE is a colourless liquid industrial chemical that is widely used for dry cleaning fabrics and for metal cleaning. It is also used to make other chemicals and is used in some consumer products.

PCE and the environment

If you have PCE in your body, most will be removed in your breath with the remainder removed in your urine. Most of the PCE will be removed within hours however some residual PCE will be left the body for several days after exposure.

In the environment PCE breaks down rapidly in air and surface water but much more slowly in soil and groundwater.

Exposure to PCE

Exposure to PCE may occur in the general community, for example it is found in some household products such as:

  • silicon lubricants
  • fabric finishers
  • spot removers
  • adhesives
  • wood cleaners.

Contamination of soil and groundwater by PCE can be a consequence of past disposal practices and/or spills and leaks from storage tanks at industrial sites.

Contact, or exposure, can occur if contaminated groundwater is consumed or used in:

  • cooking
  • showers
  • swimming pools
  • watering gardens.

If sufficient concentrations are present in soil or groundwater, PCE vapours can also penetrate through the soil, building foundations and underground service infrastructure and contaminate the indoor air that we breathe.

When you bring clothes from the dry cleaner, they may release small amounts of PCE into the air.

Health effects

PCE 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
  • what degree or level the chemical is present in air or water
  • how old you are
  • if you have any other illnesses.

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

Inhaling or ingesting large amounts of PCE over short periods of time (minutes to hours) may result in dizziness or feeling sleepy. Inhaling moderate amounts may also result in headaches. This might occur if using PCE in unventilated places such as cleaning grease from metal in a workshop.

PCE exposure is a potential human health hazard to the central nervous system, kidney, liver, immune and blood (hematologic) systems and development and reproduction.

The nervous system is considered a sensitive non-cancer health effect for low level PCE exposure. Occupational and residential studies have shown effects on colour vision, visual memory, cognitive function and reaction time.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer recently classified PCE as probably carcinogenic to humans. There is clear evidence of PCE carcinogenicity in rodents. There is suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma based on epidemiological studies.

Reducing your exposure

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

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.

Contaminated areas

If you live in an area contaminated with PCE, a way to improve air quality in your home quickly may be to ventilate your house by opening windows and doors, or in houses with a crawlspace, ensuring adequate subfloor ventilation.

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

Further information

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

If you would like to inquire whether there is soil and groundwater contamination containing PCE near where you live, please contact the Site Contamination Branch of the Environment Protection Authority by telephoning general enquiries on (08) 8204 2004.