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Also known as TCE, trichloroethylene is an industrial solvent and suspected human carcinogen commonly found as a pollutant in urban groundwater. It is the chemical at the heart of the lawsuit in the Woburn, Massachusetts tragedy told in the book and movie, A Civil Action.

What is TCE?
TCE is a nonflammable, colorless liquid with a somewhat sweet odor and a sweet, burning taste. It is used mainly as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts, but it is also an ingredient in adhesives, paint removers, typewriter correction fluids, and spot removers.

TCE is not thought to occur naturally in the environment. However, it is present in most underground water sources and many surface waters as a result of the manufacture, use, and disposal of the chemical.

What happens to TCE when it enters the environment?
¡¤ TCE easily dissolves in water, and it remains there for a long time.
¡¤ It quickly evaporates from surface water, so it is commonly found as a vapor in the air.
¡¤ It evaporates less easily from the soil, where it may stick to particles and remain for a long time.
¡¤ It may stick to particles in water, which will cause it to eventually settle to the bottom sediment.
¡¤ It does not build up significantly in plants and animals.

How might I be exposed to TCE?
¡¤ Breathing air in and around the home which has been contaminated with TCE vapors from shower water or household products such as spot removers and typewriter correction fluid
¡¤ Drinking, swimming, or showering in water that has been contaminated with TCE
¡¤ Contact with soil contaminated with TCE, such as near a hazardous waste site
¡¤ Contact with the skin or breathing contaminated air while manufacturing TCE or using it at work to wash paint or grease from skin or equipment

How can TCE affect my health?
Breathing large amounts of TCE may cause impaired heart function, coma, and death. Breathing it for long periods may cause nerve, lung, kidney, and liver damage. Breathing small amounts for short periods of time may cause headaches, lung irritation, dizziness, poor coordination, and difficulty in concentrating.

Drinking large amounts of TCE may cause nausea, liver, kidney damage, convulsions, impaired heart function, coma, or death.

Drinking small amounts of TCE for long periods may cause liver and kidney damage, nervous system effects, impaired immune system function, and impaired fetal development in pregnant women, although the extent of some of these effects is not yet clear.

Skin contact with TCE for short periods may cause skin rashes.

How likely is TCE to cause cancer?
Some studies with mice and rats have suggested that high levels of TCE may cause liver or lung cancer. Some studies of people exposed over long periods to high levels of TCE in drinking water or in workplace air have found evidence of increased cancer. However, these results are inconclusive because other chemicals could have caused the cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that TCE is not classifiable as to human carcinogenicity.

Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to TCE?
If you have recently been exposed to TCE, it can be detected in your breath, blood, or urine. With recent exposure, a breath test is a good enough indicator to determine if you have been exposed to even a small amount.

Exposure to larger amounts is assessed by blood and urine tests, which can detect TCE and many of its breakdown products for up to a week after exposure. However, exposure to other similar chemicals can produce the same breakdown products, so their detection is not absolute proof of exposure to TCE. This test isn't available at most doctors' offices, but can be done at special laboratories that have the right equipment.

Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?

¡¤ The EPA has set a maximum contaminant level for TCE in drinking water at 0.005 milligrams per liter (0.005 mg/L).
¡¤ The EPA has also developed regulations for the handling and disposal of TCE.
¡¤ The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set an exposure limit of 100 parts of TCE per million parts of air (100 ppm) for an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek.