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PCE & TCE in the Garden

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PCE & TCE in the garden - Tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and tricholoroethylene (TCE) are chlorinated solvents, compounds used in a wide variety of products including as degreasers, paint thinners, and more. These solvents are part of a broader group of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can easily evaporate from soils and water into the air. Dry-cleaners are a potential source of PCE in particular. - Summary for Gardeners » PCE and TCE are not easily taken up by plants, so without elevated levels in soil, exposure from eating produce is probably not an issue. » Breathing in these compounds as they evaporate from soil is only a concern if there are elevated levels in soil. » Taking steps to limit exposure is always a good idea. Wash hands or wear gloves, wash and peel produce, and leave dirty tools outside to help prevent exposure.

Sources of PCE & TCE Exposure

PCE and TCE exposure can occur in the garden,
but non-garden sources including dry-cleaners are
likely bigger concerns. Fumes from contaminated
soil may enter homes, other indoor spaces, and even
enclosed garden spaces like greenhouses and lead to
health concerns. Urban soils, in particular, may contain
hotspots of contamination. Groundwater may also be

Shirt dry-cleaners PCE is used as a dry
cleaning agent. Many dry-cleaners have
released PCE into surrounding soil where
it can either evaporate or leach into
Smoke vapor intrusion PCE and TCE easily
evaporate from soils. These vapors can
build up in homes where people inhale
these chemicals.
Well well water PCE and TCE can
contaminate groundwater formations
that supply drinking water via wells, and
could also contaminate garden soil via


nearby industry Some industries use
PCE and TCE as degreasers, in glues,
paint removers, etc. PCE and TCE can be
released in air, water, and soil.

Exposure to PCE & TCE In the Garden

How might I be exposed? Exposure can occur through skin contact with contaminated soils, eating soil particles, or breathing in soil dust or evaporated
PCE and TCE.
Are my garden plants safe to eat? In general, plants do not take up much PCE or TCE from contaminated soil, so they should be safe. Washing them is still not
a bad idea.
Should I be worried? Garden-related PCE and TCE exposure is likely not a concern for most people, but limiting exposure (especially for children) is still a good idea. It is important to remember that there are many health benefits to home and community gardening.

Limit Children’s Exposure

  • Small doses matter. Children breathe, eat, and drink more relative to their size than adults
  • Their bodies and brains are still developing
  • Children spend more time on the ground and often put things (like dirt) into their mouths
  • They have more skin surface area than adults, so skin exposure also matters

child with sand bucket

Making Sense of Regulatory Standards

No official standards have been established in North Carolina for levels of PCE or TCE in garden soils. Below are North Carolina preliminary soil remediation goals to clean up residential soils (NC) and similar goals from New York state (NY). The New York guidelines take into account home gardening as an exposure pathway.

Risk chart

Health Impacts of PCE and TCE

TCE is a known human carcinogen — it has been linked to kidney cancer and potentially blood and liver cancers. PCE has been linked to bladder cancer, cancer of certain cells in bone marrow, and blood cancers, but the evidence is more limited than with TCE.
Short-term exposure to PCE or TCE at high enough levels can lead to various health problems including dizziness, headaches, and the malfunction of various organs.
Exposure to PCE during pregnancy may lead to miscarriage, birth defects, and slowed growth of the baby. TCE is linked to developmental health effects.

Reduce PCE and TCE Exposure In the Garden

  • If PCE, TCE, or other chlorinated solvents are at high concentrations in your soil or groundwater, there may be a source nearby
  • Uptake of PCE and TCE by plants is low, so focus on controlling dust and limiting soil ingestion
  • Consider installing raised garden beds and make sure to place landscape fabric between the ground and new soil
  • Remove boots or shoes after gardening to reduce the amount of contaminated soil you track into your home
  • To reduce PCE and TCE particles in the air from dust, cover bare soil with mulch and keep the soil moist
  • Conduct soil-safety training for all garden users on exposure reduction strategies
  • Visit our website or download our factsheet on 10 Healthy Garden Habits in English or in Spanish.

Testing Resources

Hand holding soil and plant How to test your soil and interpret the results
water drop Well water testing for PCE, TCE, and other VOCs
Question mark

Still have questions about soil testing for contaminants?

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For more information visit the Community Gardens project page.

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More Information

This factsheet was created by the Duke University Superfund Research Center’s Community Engagement Core with the goal of helping garden managers, Extension agents, Master Gardeners, and home gardeners identify, understand, and manage risks associated with chemical contamination that may be present in garden soils. This work was supported through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences P42 Multiproject Center Grant program, grant number P42ES010356.