Tetrachloroethylene, used commercially since the early 1900’s, has been an important chlorinated solvent worldwide. Tetrachloroethylene is a colourless, volatile liquid with an ether-like odour. It is also commonly referred to as perchloroethylene (PCE) or PERC. There are numerous other synonyms and product names; see HSDB for more information.
IARC has classified tetrachloroethylene as Group 2A, probably carcinogenic to humans, based on sufficient evidence in animals. Tetrachloroethylene is known to cause leukemia in rats and liver cancer in mice. Exposure to PERC also caused kidney cancer in male rats.
Studies in drycleaning workers exposed to PERC show consistently positive associations with the development of oesophageal and cervical cancer, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It is unlikely that these associations are due to chance, but the studies were limited by small numbers of cases and concurrent exposure to petroleum solvents and other drycleaning agents.[2,3]
Other adverse health effects associated with exposure to tetrachloroethylene include skin irritation and burns, depression of the central nervous system, liver and kidney damage, and reproductive effects.[2,4]
Environment Canada: Tetrachloroethylene in Dry Cleaning Regulations
PERC must be used in a closed-loop, dry to dry machine. May not be used for spot treatments*.
CEPA 1999: Solvent Degreasing Regulations
Users of >1,000 kg/yr of PERC for cold or vapour degreasing must comply with the regulations.
*See the compliance guide for further discussion of these and several other rules for use of PERC in drycleaning.
Tetrachloroethylene was not included in other Canadian government chemical listings reviewed.
PERC is used primarily for dry cleaning and metal degreasing purposes. It is often used in combination with another chlorinated solvent called trichloroethylene (or TCE). Please see the CAREX Carcinogen Profile for TCE for more information.
PERC is used for its ability to remove fats, greases, waxes and oils from fabric without damaging it. It was introduced to the dry cleaning industry in the 1930s. It replaced benzene, gasoline, kerosene and camphene which were commonly used for stain removal at the time. Up until 1996, the main use of PERC was in the drycleaning industry; in response to lower workplace exposure limits, this use declined during the 1990s in the US.
Canadian regulations passed in 2003 require the metal degreasing industry to decrease consumption of tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene by 65% from 2007-2021.
PERC has primarily been used as a chemical intermediate since 1996, notably in the production of fluorinated compounds (mainly CFC-113 and HFC-1134a). It is also used in paint removers, printing inks, spot removers, automotive cleaners, and adhesives.
Canadian Production and Trade
Production and Trade
None since 1989
Export: Mainly to South Africa
1,858 t of ‘tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene)’
Import: Mainly from US
11,976 t of 'tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene)'
t = tonne
Inhalation is the most important route of occupational exposure to tetrachloroethylene.
Workers in the dry cleaning industry, performing metal degreasing, in fluorocarbon production, and in the chemical production industry are at risk of exposure to tetrachloroethylene. Exposure to tetrachloroethylene in the dry cleaning industry has decreased considerably over the last 30 years. In the US, the arithmetic mean exposure in the 1970s was 67 ppm (range 0 to 1000). For the years of 1990 to 2002, the arithmetic mean exposure was 10 ppm (range 0.01 to 334).
The most important routes of exposure for the general public are inhalation of ambient air and ingestion of water contaminated by tetrachloroethylene. Improper disposal and releases from dry-cleaning facilities and landfills can lead to ground water contamination and potential environmental exposures. Some samples of Canadian drinking water have also been found to contain tetrachloroethylene.
The general public may be exposed to tetrachloroethylene by frequenting or living near dry cleaning businesses or via contact with freshly dry-cleaned clothing. There is evidence suggesting that the family members of workers employed at dry cleaning facilities are more exposed to tetrachloroethylene than the general population.
Tetrachloroethylene has been detected in dairy products, meats, oils and fats, beverages, fruits and vegetables, bread, fish, shellfish, and marine mammals.
Searches of environmental and consumer product databases yielded the following results on current potential for exposure to tetrachloroethylene in Canada:
NPRI and US Household Products Database
Search term: ‘tetrachloroethylene'
Released into Environment
Dry cleaners, chemical manufacturers and waste collection and treatment facilities (39 companies)
Sent to off-site recycling
US Household Products 2012
Mostly auto part cleaners; also lubricants, hobby/craft adhesives, household stain removers.
Doherty RE. 2000. A history of the production and use of carbon tetrachloride, tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, and 1,1,1-trichloroethane in the United States: Part 1: Historical background; Carbon tetrachloride and tetrachloroethylene. Env. Forensics; 1(2):69-81.
CPI Product Profiles, Camford Information Services: Perchloroethylene (2004)