Trichloroethylene was first described in 1864 and has been used as an anaesthetic and analgesic. It is widely used as a solvent and thinner, refrigerant, heat exchange fluid, dry cleaning agent and degreaser (Maull et al., 1997). Occupational exposures may involve exposure to both vapour and liquid. The highest levels of occupational exposure occur in metal cleaning processes (IPCS, 1985).

Trichloroethylene is a CNS depressant and can cause narcosis at high concentrations. Deaths have occurred after exposure to concentrations greater than 15,000 ppm (Lemen, 2001). Trichloroethylene can sensitise the heart to catecholamines and cardiac arrest has been reported in industrial accidents (Annau, 1981) and from intentional inhalation of trichloroethylene (Thomas and Baud, 1987; Wodka and Jeong, 1989). The main route of exposure is inhalation but occasionally trichloroethylene may be ingested. In industrial situations ingestion may occur as splash contact or as part of immersion or heavy contamination. Intentional ingestion of trichloroethylene by adults and accidental ingestion by children is rare.

A study of deaths from trichloroethylene exposure in the USA between 1975-1992 found that eight deaths were attributable to trichloroethylene. All the deaths occurred in young men who usually worked in confined spaces without adequate ventilation. The study also revealed an absence of engineering controls, proper work practices and appropriate personal protective equipment in these cases (Ford et al., 1995).

Organic halocarbons including trichloroethylene are some of the most frequent drinking water contaminants (Condie, 1985) and trichloroethylene and trichloroacetic acid have been measured in blood and urine of people with no history of solvent exposure (Skender and Karaccicc, 1996).

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