Trichloroethylene: An Invisible Cause of Parkinson’s Disease?

The etiologies of Parkinson’s disease (PD) remain unclear. Some, such as certain genetic mutations and head trauma, are widely known or easily identified. However, these causes or risk factors do not account for the majority of cases. Other, less visible factors must be at play.

Among these is a widely used industrial solvent and common environmental contaminant little recognized for its likely role in PD: trichloroethylene (TCE). TCE is a simple, six-atom molecule that can decaffeinate coffee, degrease metal parts, and dry clean clothes. The colorless chemical was first linked to parkinsonism in 1969. Since then, four case studies involving eight individuals have linked occupational exposure to TCE to PD. In addition, a small epidemiological study found that occupational or hobby exposure to the solvent was associated with a 500% increased risk of developing PD. In multiple animal studies, the chemical reproduces the pathological features of PD.

Exposure is not confined to those who work with the chemical. TCE pollutes outdoor air, taints groundwater, and contaminates indoor air. The molecule, like radon, evaporates from underlying soil and groundwater and enters homes, workplaces, or schools, often undetected. Despite widespread contamination and increasing industrial, commercial, and military use, clinical investigations of TCE and PD have been limited. Here, through a literature review and seven illustrative cases, we postulate that this ubiquitous chemical is contributing to the global rise of PD and that TCE is one of its invisible and highly preventable causes. Further research is now necessary to examine this hypothesis.