Perchloroethylene - ChemicalSafetyFacts.org

Perchloroethylene

Perchloroethylene, also known as perc, is a colorless, nonflammable liquid solvent with a sweet, ether-like odor. It is primarily used in industrial settings and also for dry-cleaning fabrics and degreasing metals.

Uses & Benefits

Perchloroethylene is a solvent commonly used in dry cleaning operations. When applied to a material or fabric, perc helps dissolve greases, oils and waxes without damaging the fabric.

In metal manufacturing, solvents containing perchloroethylene clean and degrease new metal to help prevent impurities from weakening the metal.

Due to its durability and ability to adhere to plastics, metal, rubber and leather, perchloroethylene has been used as an ingredient in a range of common products such as water repellants, paint removers, printing inks, glues, sealants, polishes and lubricants.

Safety Information

Perchloroethylene is present in very tiny amounts in the environment as a result of industrial releases. Dry cleaned clothes may release small amounts of perc into the air, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

The low levels of perchloroethylene that most people are exposed to in air, water and food are not reported to cause symptoms, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). People who wear dry cleaned clothing may be exposed to perc levels that are slightly higher than what is normally found in air, but these amounts are also not expected to be hazardous to the average person’s health.

People who live or work near dry cleaning facilities may be exposed to higher levels of perchloroethylene than the general population. To help limit any potential health risks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ruled that dry cleaners located in residential buildings must phase out dry cleaning machines that use perc by December 21, 2020.

The highest exposures to perchloroethylene tend to occur in the workplace, especially among dry cleaning workers or workers at metal degreasing facilities. Exposure to these higher levels of perc can lead to irritation of the eyes, skin, nose, throat and/or respiratory system. Short-term exposure to high levels of perc can affect the central nervous system and may lead to unconsciousness or death, according to NIH. To help protect these workers, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends special safety precautions, such as a recommended schedule of maintenance activities and performing daily checks for perc leaks from dry cleaning machines.

Answering Questions

What is perchloroethylene used for?

Perchloroethylene, also known as perc, is a solvent used in dry cleaning operations. In metal manufacturing, perc cleans and degreases metals.

Where are people exposed to perchloroethylene?

The highest exposures to perchloroethylene tend to occur in the workplace, especially among dry cleaning and degreasing workers. To protect workers, OSHA recommends specific safety precautions. The dry cleaning industry has also worked to reduce perc exposures for workers in recent years, by implementing improved safety measures, and switching over to modern dry cleaning equipment that reduces worker exposure to perc.

What are the health effects of perchloroethylene?

The low levels of perchloroethylene that may be present in air, water and food are not reported to cause symptoms. The highest exposures to perc tend to occur in industrial settings. Higher levels of perc exposure can lead to irritation of the eyes, skin, nose, throat and/or respiratory system. Short-term exposure to high levels of perc can affect the central nervous system and cause unconsciousness and death, according to NIH.

Can you be exposed to perc from your dry-cleaned clothing?

People who wear dry cleaned clothing may be exposed to perc at levels that are slightly higher than what is normally found in air, but these amounts are not expected to be hazardous to the average person’s health, according to ACS.

Does perchloroethylene cause cancer?

According to ACS, some studies of people exposed to perc at work, such as dry cleaning workers, found more cases than expected of certain cancers, including cancers of the esophagus, kidney, cervix and bladder, as well as lymphomas. However, the results of these studies did not always agree, and there were so few cases of cancer in general that the increased risk often may have been due to chance, not exposure to perc. Many of these studies also did not account for other factors that might affect cancer risk, such as cigarette or alcohol use. ATSDR states that exposure to perchloroethylene might lead to a higher risk of bladder cancer, multiple myeloma or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for some people, but also states that the evidence is not very strong.