Land and groundwater

Human health and trichloroethylene (TCE)

How can people be exposed to trichloroethylene?

The most common way people are exposed to TCE is when it evaporates into the air and they breathe it in.

This may happen in industrial facilities where it is used as a cleaning solvent. In some cases, TCE in groundwater may evaporate and move up through the soil, entering buildings through cracks or gaps in basements as a gas that could be inhaled. If the contaminated groundwater is used for cooking, swimming or washing, TCE may be swallowed. TCE is also found in some glues and household cleaners, which produce fumes that may be breathed in.

TCE and other volatile chemicals may be present at very low levels both indoors and outdoors – we call these levels ‘background concentrations’. At these levels, they generally do not pose a health risk.

Increased health risks are more likely when TCE is present in high concentrations and people are exposed for long periods of time. Each person’s actual risk depends on the level and duration of exposure, and their personal sensitivity, which may be influenced by their general health, genetics, age, diet and other factors. 

How can TCE affect the body?

Short-term exposure to high air levels of TCE can lead to headaches, dizziness, drowsiness and fatigue. Eye, nose and throat irritation may also occur. TCE breaks down in the human body within a matter of days and does not accumulate over time.

Long-term exposure at high levels may affect nerve function, vision, muscle control, thinking and behaviour. There is evidence that long-term TCE exposure may slightly increase the risk of contracting some cancers, including kidney and liver cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Much of what is known about the health effects of TCE is based on long-term exposure at high levels in workplaces rather than residential exposure.

If you are concerned about your health relating to TCE, please contact EPA on 1300 372 842 (1300 EPA VIC) so any potential risks can be assessed.

Page last updated on 19 Jun 2017