About chlorinated hydrocarbons (CHCs)

Chlorinated hydrocarbons (CHCs) comprise many chemicals, including tetrachloroethene (PCE) and trichloroethene (TCE).

PCE is a colourless liquid industrial chemical. It’s widely used in industries including:

  • dry cleaners
  • metal finishers
  • electronics manufacturing.

TCE is a clear liquid once widely used as an industrial solvent. Solvents are used to dissolve certain materials. TCE is still used in some industries today.

How CHCs can impact human health

Risk to human health from exposure to CHCs depends on:

  • exposure concentrations
  • how often and for how long exposure occurs
  • personal factors, including general health, genetics and age. 

How PCE can impact human health

Short term or infrequent exposure to low PCE levels are unlikely to pose risks to human health. High levels of PCE pose risks that increase with the period of exposure.

PCE breaks down in the human body quickly and doesn’t build up over time.

Short-term impacts of exposure to high levels of PCE include:

  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness and fatigue.

Long-term exposure to high PCE levels is a risk to:

  • the central nervous system
  • kidneys
  • liver
  • immune and blood systems
  • development and reproduction.

How TCE can impact human health

Low TCE levels are unlikely to pose risks to human health. High levels of TCE pose risks that increase with the period of exposure.

TCE breaks down in the human body within days. It doesn’t build up over time. When exposure to TCE stops, it takes a short time to leave the body and stop causing harm.

Short-term impacts of exposure to high levels of TCE include: 

  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness and fatigue
  • eye, nose and throat irritation.

Long-term exposure to high TCE levels is a risk to: 

  • the central nervous and immune systems
  • the male reproductive system
  • kidneys
  • liver.

About exposure to CHCs

CHCs are present in many consumer and industrial products such as:

  • glues
  • household cleaners
  • dry cleaning products
  • metal degreasers.

CHCs that spill on the ground can contaminate soil and groundwater, and remain in them for a long time.

Using or drinking groundwater that CHCs have contaminated can be a risk to human health, when in high enough concentrations.

CHCs present in groundwater or soil may become vapours. These vapours can enter nearby buildings through cracks in foundations and at points where services enter buildings. This is called vapour intrusion. It’s possible for humans to breathe in these vapours.

Many factors influence vapour intrusion, and concentrations indoors may change depending on:

  • weather
  • source of vapour intrusion
  • building ventilation
  • building heating and cooling systems.

For more information, see PCE Factsheet (publication 1953).

How we assess whether CHCs could cause harm to human health

When CHCs are found in drinking water or indoor air, we compare their levels with environmental guidelines. If measured concentrations in drinking water or indoor air exceed these, it doesn’t mean there is an immediate risk to human health. However, it does mean  the duty holder will need to carry out more investigations. 
Find more information on how EPA assesses risks from contaminated land.

What to do if you’re concerned about exposure to CHCs

If you or your family are exposed to high concentrations of CHCs, see your doctor or contact Nurse on Call on 1300 60 60 24. Your doctor can contact EPA’s Environmental Public Health unit to further discuss exposure to CHCs.

Contact EPA or call us on 1300 372 842 with any concerns about TCE and your health. We’re here 24 hours.

How you can reduce risk of exposure to CHCs

CHCs may be present in consumer products you use. Replace these with other products where possible.

If you live in an area contaminated with CHCs, you may be able to improve air quality in your home quickly:

  • Open windows and doors to ventilate your house
  • Ensure there’s enough subfloor ventilation in houses with a crawlspace.

Victoria Unearthed has information on whether your home is in an area that might be contaminated.

Find out more about other public health issues related to pollution and waste

About mercury in your home

Airborne dust and your health

Climate, weather and public health

Contaminated illegal drug labs and public health 

Contaminated land and public health

Environmental public health

Environmental public health: EPA’s role

Groundwater and your health

How to clean up mercury spills in your home

How to manage hazardous chemical waste and asbestos in your home

Your health and the environment: learn and take action

Reviewed 6 April 2021