Apartment residents' and day care workers' exposures to tetrachloroethylene and deficits in visual contrast sensitivity

Environ Health Perspect. 2002 Jul;110(7):655-64. doi: 10.1289/ehp.02110655.


Tetrachloroethylene (also called perchloroethylene, or perc), a volatile organic compound, has been the predominant solvent used by the dry-cleaning industry for many years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified perc as a hazardous air pollutant because of its potential adverse impact on human health. Several occupational studies have indicated that chronic, airborne perc exposure adversely affects neurobehavioral functions in workers, particularly visual color discrimination and tasks dependent on rapid visual-information processing. A 1995 study by Altmann and colleagues extended these findings, indicating that environmental perc exposure at a mean level of 4,980 microg/m(3) (median=1,360 microg/m(3)) alters neurobehavioral functions in residents living near dry-cleaning facilities. Although the U.S. EPA has not yet set a reference concentration guideline level for environmental exposure to airborne perc, the New York State Department of Health set an air quality guideline of 100 microg/m(3). In the current residential study, we investigated the potential for perc exposure and neurologic effects, using a battery of visual-system function tests, among healthy members of six families living in two apartment buildings in New York City that contained dry-cleaning facilities on the ground floors. In addition, a day care investigation assessed the potential for perc exposure and effects among workers at a day care center located in the same one-story building as a dry-cleaning facility. Results from the residential study showed a mean exposure level of 778 microg/m(3) perc in indoor air for a mean of 5.8 years, and that perc levels in breath, blood, and urine were 1-2 orders of magnitude in excess of background values. Group-mean visual contrast sensitivity (VCS), a measure of the ability to detect visual patterns, was significantly reduced in the 17 exposed study participants relative to unexposed matched-control participants. The groups did not differ in visual acuity, suggesting that the VCS deficit was of neurologic origin. Healthy workers in the day care investigation were chronically exposed to airborne perc at a mean of 2,150 microg/m(3) for a mean of 4.0 years. Again, group-mean VCS, measured 6 weeks after exposure cessation, was significantly reduced in the nine exposed workers relative to matched controls, and the groups did not differ significantly in visual acuity. These results suggested that chronic, environmental exposure to airborne perc adversely affects neurobehavioral function in healthy individuals. Further research is needed to assess the susceptibility of the young and elderly to perc-induced effects, to determine whether persistent solvent-induced VCS deficits are a risk factor for the development of neurologic disease, and to identify the no observable adverse effect level for chronic, environmental, perc exposure in humans.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Air Pollution, Indoor / adverse effects*
  • Child
  • Contrast Sensitivity / drug effects*
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Female
  • Housing
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nervous System Diseases / chemically induced
  • Nervous System Diseases / epidemiology
  • New York City / epidemiology
  • Risk Factors
  • Solvents / adverse effects*
  • Tetrachloroethylene / adverse effects*
  • Visual Acuity / drug effects


  • Solvents
  • Tetrachloroethylene