Tetrachloroethene (PCE) in Public Water and Health

PCE in public water

Tetrachloroethene (PCE), also known as perchloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, and perchloroethene, is a man-made, colorless, dense liquid. The maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PCE is 5 mcg/L.

Exposure and Risk

In the past, PCE was used in large amounts to produce other chemicals and as an industrial solvent. It was also used to clean and degrease metals and used in paints and pesticides. Less toxic chemicals are now available to replace this solvent. Large-scale commercial production of PCE has stopped, although some production still occurs.

PCE is not life threatening unless people intentionally or accidentally drink more than a few spoonful's at one time or spill a large amount so that they breathe it and get it on their skin. Breathing concentrated fumes of PCE (enough so that its sickeningly sweet smell is noticed) can rapidly cause fatigue, vomiting, dizziness, and possibly unconsciousness. Most people recover from these effects once they are in fresh air.

Breathing, drinking, or having PCE come into contact with skin may cause liver damage, stomach aches, or dizziness if people are exposed long enough to high amounts. The health effects on people from long-term exposure to small amounts of PCE are not known.

Most people are not expected to be exposed very much to PCE because the levels are usually very low in the environment and it is no longer used by the general public. Higher levels of PCE have been found in groundwater at a few locations in the United States. Individuals who use or drink the groundwater from these locations may have higher exposures to PCE. People who live near hazardous waste sites and industrial buildings where PCE is used may be exposed to this chemical by breathing in contaminated air, touching contaminated soil, or drinking contaminated water.

In addition to exposures in air and drinking water, people may be exposed to PCE from accidents or normal operations in workplaces. The compound has been used as a solvent for many operations. People involved in such work are most likely to be exposed by breathing in vapors of the chemical or from skin contact.


Community Public Water Supplies are already being tested for PCE and other solvents, and are required to provide that information each year to consumers in the annual Consumer Confidence Report. If a doctor finds that a patient has been exposed to substantial amounts of PCE, that doctor should ask whether any children in the household might also have been exposed. The doctor might need to ask the state health department to investigate.

Families are not likely to be exposed to amounts of PCE that are high enough to be a health concern because the chemical is no longer used in household products. It is possible that some old household products (such as cleaners, degreasers, and paints) contain small amounts of PCE. These products should be kept out of reach of children.