Renal toxicity and carcinogenicity of trichloroethylene: key results, mechanisms, and controversies

Crit Rev Toxicol. 2000 May;30(3):253-85. doi: 10.1080/10408440091159202.


The discussion on renal carcinogenicity of trichloroethylene addresses epidemiological, mechanistic, and metabolic aspects. After trichloroethylene exposure of rats, renal cell tumors were found increased in males, and an increased incidence of interstitial cell tumors of the testes was reported. Studies on the metabolism of trichloroethylene in rodents and in humans support the role of bioactivation reactions for the development of tumors following exposure to trichloroethylene. Epidemiological cohort studies addressing the carcinogenicity of trichloroethylene with respect to the renal or urothelial target sites have been conducted, and no clear evidence for an elevated renal or urinary tract cancer risk in trichloroethylene-exposed groups was visible in exposed populations. However, a cohort study of 169 male workers having been exposed to unusually high levels of trichloroethylene in Germany within the period between 1956 and 1975 supported a nephrocarcinogenic effect of trichloroethylene in humans. The results of this study were discussed in the literature with considerable reserve; criticism was based mainly on the choice of the study group, which had been recruited from personnel of a company in which a cluster of four renal tumors was observed previously. Hence, a further case-control study was conducted in the same region. This study confirmed the results of the previous cohort study, supporting the concept of involvement of prolonged and high-dose trichloroethylene exposures in the development of renal cell cancer. Further investigations on patients with renal cell carcinoma and with histories of high trichloroethylene exposures, on the basis of excretion of marker proteins in the urine, pointed to toxic damage to the proximal renal tubules by trichloroethylene. The hypothesis of implication of a glutathione transferase-dependent bioactivating pathway of trichloroethylene, established in experimental animals, seems at least also plausible for humans. Apparently, the occurrence of renal cell carcinomas in man follows high-dose exposures to trichloroethylene that are also accompanied by damage to tubular renal cells. Development of renal cell carcinomas has been related to mutations in the vonHippel-Lindau (VHL) tumor suppressor gene. Renal cell carcinoma tissues of persons with histories of prolonged high-dose exposure to trichloroethylene were investigated for the occurrence of mutations of the vonHippel-Lindau (VHL) tumor suppressor gene. VHL gene mutations were found in the majority of renal cell tumors associated with high-level exposure to trichloroethylene. A specific mutational hot spot at the VHL nucleotide 454 was addressed as a unique mutation pattern of the VHL tumor suppressor gene. A synopsis of all experimental, clinical, and epidemiological data suggests that reactive metabolites of trichloroethylene, with likely involvement of dichlorovinyl-cysteine (DCVC), exert a genotoxic effect on the proximal tubule of the human kidney. This constitutes a tumor-initiating process of genotoxic nature, the initial genotoxic effect apparently being linked with mutational changes in the VHL tumor suppressor gene. However, there is compelling evidence that the full development of a malignant tumor requires continued promotional stimuli. Repetitive episodes of high peak exposures to trichloroethylene over a prolonged period of time apparently led to nephrotoxicity, visualized by the excretion of tubular marker proteins in the urine. This critical process of development of tubular damage by trichloroethylene must follow a "conventional" dose-dependence, implying a practical threshold. This view is much corroborated by the fact that the occurrence of human renal cell cancer is obviously confined to cases of unusually high trichloroethylene exposures in the past, with special characteristics of very high and repetitive peak exposures. Current instruments of regulation should be adjusted to allow adequate consideration of su

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinogenicity Tests
  • Carcinogens / metabolism
  • Carcinogens / toxicity*
  • Genes, Tumor Suppressor / genetics
  • Humans
  • Kidney / drug effects*
  • Kidney / metabolism
  • Kidney / pathology
  • Ligases*
  • Mutagens / metabolism
  • Mutagens / toxicity
  • Neoplasms, Experimental / chemically induced
  • Neoplasms, Experimental / genetics
  • Neoplasms, Experimental / metabolism
  • Proteins / genetics
  • Species Specificity
  • Trichloroethylene / metabolism
  • Trichloroethylene / toxicity*
  • Tumor Suppressor Proteins*
  • Ubiquitin-Protein Ligases*
  • Von Hippel-Lindau Tumor Suppressor Protein


  • Carcinogens
  • Mutagens
  • Proteins
  • Tumor Suppressor Proteins
  • Trichloroethylene
  • Ubiquitin-Protein Ligases
  • Von Hippel-Lindau Tumor Suppressor Protein
  • Ligases
  • VHL protein, human