Tetrachloroethylene may be a chemical you’ve never heard of, but chances are pretty good that it’s a substance you’ve been in contact with, particularly if you use brake cleaner. Tetrachloroethylene (also called perchloroethylene or PERC) is an industrial solvent used for degreasing metals and dry cleaning fabrics. It is an ingredient sometimes found in printing inks, adhesives, sealants, wood cleaner, shoe polish, leather treatments, type writer correction fluid (back in the day), lubricants and silicone. Because Tetrachloroethylene is non-flammable and fast drying (through evaporation), it is an ingredient in aerosol solvents, most notably, brake cleaner.
Although this chemical is a great solvent, it is far from great for people. Tetrachloroethylene carries a range of serious health and safety risks through both short-term and long-term exposure to the chemical. People are most at risk of illness and injury when they regularly handle or are directly exposed to Tetrachloroethylene in its liquid and gas state. An example would be a workshop mechanic who uses brake cleaner aerosols routinely. In addition to the significant risks Tetrachloroethylene carries, the substance becomes an extremely poisonous gas called Phosgene when it is heated to temperatures above 315 degrees Celsius. This means that a workplace that uses brake cleaner AND ALSO uses extreme heat on the premises (such as welding) is a seriously dangerous place to be.
Health and Safety Risks of Tetrachloroethylene
Exposure to this chemical is through skin contact and breathing in evaporated fumes. Both of these exposure routes are almost inevitable when using it as a brake cleaner spray. Because Tetrachloroethylene has a high vapour pressure, it readily evaporates at room temperature, creating a hazard wherever it is used. Tetrachloroethylene has a range of established health and safety risks.
Short-term exposure: Low levels of Tetrachloroethylene vapour can irritate eyes, nose, mouth, throat and respiratory tract, and cause dizziness, headache, sleepiness and confusion. Direct contact with skin causes irritation and discomfort. Short term exposure to higher levels of Tetrachloroethylene can cause build-up of fluid in the lungs, respiratory irritation, severe shortness of breath, sweating, nausea and vomiting. In extreme cases, short-term exposure to higher levels of this chemical can cause unconsciousness and death.
Long-term exposure: Tetrachloroethylene has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a Group 2A Carcinogen, which means that it probably causes cancer in humans. The chemical has been linked to oesophagal cancer, cervical cancer, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Animal studies have linked Tetrachloroethylene to liver tumours in mice and kidney tumours in rats.
Long-term exposure to Tetrachloroethylene can damage the central nervous system, liver and kidneys. It can lead to respiratory issues, memory loss and confusion, and acquired colour vision deficiencies. There is a growing body of evidence linking Tetrachloroethylene to a substantial increase in the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
Tetrachloroethylene is classified as a teratogen which means that ongoing exposure while pregnant can damage the developing fetus.
Extreme Danger when Heated
Tetrachloroethylene is commonly found in brake cleaners used in workshops. Despite its toxicity, it is an extremely effective, quick drying and non-flammable solvent. Unfortunately, this chemical’s prevalence may lead to it being used for non-brake cleaning purposes, such as metal surface cleaning prior to welding. Heating Tetrachloroethylene brake cleaner residue past 315 degrees Celsius, such as in the presence of welding, creates Phosgene.
Phosgene is a Deadly Gas
Phosgene gas is a pulmonary (choking) agent which was used as a chemical weapon during World War 1. It is a white or pale yellow gas that creates a vapour cloud near the ground and spreads quickly. It can be fatal in doses as low as 4 parts per million. Once exposed, there is no antidote for Phosgene poisoning.
During, or immediately after exposure to a dangerous concentration of Phosgene, people can experience an unpleasant range of symptoms including: coughing, difficulty breathing, burning sensation in eyes, nose and throat, nausea and vomiting, skin lesions, low blood pressure and heart failure. It is not uncommon for the effects of Phosgene poisoning to be delayed by 2-6 hours or even longer, before signs of pulmonary oedema, kidney, liver or heart failure are observed. Full recovery is possible depending on the concentration of gas the person was exposed to. However ongoing chronic bronchitis and emphysema can be experienced after Phosgene exposure.
There are a number of notable cases of Phosgene poisoning as a result of incorrect use of Tetrachloroethylene brake cleaner.
Eliminating the Risk
The best way to avoid these alarming risks is to use safer solvent alternatives in the workplace. Developments in solvent technology mean that Tetrachloroethylene is an avoidable hazard for workshops and maintenance operations. Better performing and safer brake cleaner and other workshop solvents are readily available. Superior and safer solvents free of Tetrachloroethylene remove the risks associated with exposure to this toxin. They also eliminate the possibility of accidently creating deadly Phosgene gas in the workplace.
Related Article: Many “Tetrachloroethylene Free” brake cleaners replace the solvent with n-Hexane instead. n-Hexane is a powerful nerve toxin which is readily absorbed into the body. Read more.
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I worked in the motor industry exposed to break cleaner and BG product (fuel injector cleaner).;for the past 16 years and got cancer.I am in remission now
Tara. What type of cancer did you get? I too have worked many years in an automotive garage with brake cleaner, parts cleaner, gasoline, fuel, BG products, and the like. I just turned 37, I am a female, and I have 3 pages with of diagnosis. Tested positive for lupus, then didnt, checked for MS on 3 emergency room visits due to loss of speech, formation of words and coordination. In 2017 I began randomly falling asleep and my rheumatologist sent me for a sleep study since thyroid was fine, B12 was fine, etc. Diagnosed with Narcolepsy type 2 out of NOWHERE. Bilateral carpal tunnel (ok mechanic) bilateral lateral and medical epichondylitis, osteoarthritis osteoporosis!, diabetes, hypersolemnce syndrome, double vision, memory loss, cysts on ovaries and uterus that no one cares to biopsy, fibromyalgia, anxiety. Panic attacks, personality disorder, I can go on for a while… but did I mention the everyday, excruciating, debilitating, bone pain? Hips, buttocks, groin, thighs, knees, shoulders, wrists, neck, lower back (oh complex migraines that mimic strokes and cause the entire one side of my body to lose feeling for about 30 mins.) And to top it off, I developed a cough. My fiance at the time because concerned after it lasted over 6 months. I went to the ER many times complaining of shortness of breath and chest pain only to be dismissed time after time with a panic attack. I finally got my family doc to send me to a cardiologist after a new found systolic murmur. Found: mitral and tricuspid Valve regurgitation (can be normal), I got an “hmm and OH” during the heart echo of the aorta and never an explanation why… diagnosed with moderate pulmonary hypertension to boot, and was sent on my way. Told I’m young this can all be nothing, until 5/2019 when I went into cardiac arrest just a week or two after getting back from the hospital with chest pain and a “Panic Attack.”
While visiting one of my pain management doctors for the first time back in 2017 and BEGGING for cortisone injections to help ease all the bone, muscle, and joint pain… I will never forget what he asked me, ” What do you do for a living because all of your symptoms dont fit a person your age at ALL. and If I didnt know any better, I would say you’ve been severely poisoned.”
what type of cancer were you diagnosed with Tara?
my husband is also very sick, he is a mechanic for 30 years! did you get any answers?
I have everlasting medical issues from over exposure to dangerous brake cleaning fluid, working at an oil changing establishment… I used brake cleaning fluid to clean the residual oil, so I could drain the oil pan….
I have never worked on cars or motors, but I am capable of changing oil….
However changing your own oil is not the same, and I had never even heard of brake cleaning fluid….
That’s the other thing…. At my job… The magic solution delivered in the blue barrel had no label or a specification list…
every morning my manager or the other guy filled a can with brake cleaning fluid ( from unmarked barrel ) and air to keep the customer’s drive ways clean…. after seeing what magic it did and just getting the job, I wanted to look busy in between customers…. so I scrubbed the floor with gallons of brake cleaning fluid as if I was helping my mother and father scrub the back of our shrimp boat when I was young….
The oil pit floor shined….
And even then no one told me what I was working with let alone the danger, but the same people neglecting to mention the danger….
Also dumped brake cleaning fluid from above rinsing engines from oil spilling out of the topside oil filters…
Finally I was telling another employee that dried vehicles on the car wash side about how awesome it is not having mechanic looking hands without using Lava Soap or nasty Gojo ( GoJo is like mayo )…
I’ve not worked there for two years….
I am always nauseated, constant headache, but the best is never being able to catch my breath…
And just a couple weeks ago my left hand and arm have started shaking….
I’m only 45… with a 2 year old son….
Life is cruel
Thankѕ for finally talkіng about > Tetrachloroethylene, a deadly danger
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