Carbon Tetrachloride Poisoning

Written by Marissa Selner and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


Carbon tetrachloride is a man-made compound. It is used in some dry cleaning agents, refrigerants, cleaners, and pesticides. Due to its high toxicity, it has been removed from most household products.

If you work with this chemical, it is important to take proper safety precautions. It can be toxic in both liquid and gas forms. The chemical is dangerous if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin.

Poisoning can cause toxic hepatitis and death. Animal studies have also linked exposure to liver cancer.

The information in this article is not intended to treat poison exposure. If exposure occurs, call 911 or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

What Causes Carbon Tetrachloride Poisoning?

Poisoning can occur if you are exposed to high levels of this chemical. Low levels of exposure over long periods of time can also be toxic. This chemical is poisonous if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin.

Who Is at Risk for Carbon Tetrachloride Poisoning?

People who work at commercial dry cleaning facilities have a high risk of this type of poisoning. So do people who work in other industries where this chemical is used or manufactured. Proper safety equipment can reduce the risk.

Carbon tetrachloride may seep into ground water. Bathing or swimming in contaminated water can lead to poisoning. Drinking contaminated water is also a risk.

What Are the Symptoms of Carbon Tetrachloride Poisoning?

If exposed to large amounts of this chemical, poisoning symptoms may be sudden and severe. Immediate symptoms include:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • blurred vision
  • warmth in stomach, if liquid carbon tetrachloride was ingested

Exposure to extremely high or concentrated doses may cause:

  • vomiting
  • stomach pain
  • death

Delayed symptoms may appear several days after acute exposure. They may also develop after a long period of gradual exposure.

Toxic hepatitis is a major complication of this type of poisoning. It is a type of damage to the liver and kidneys. Symptoms include:

  • persistent headache
  • abdominal pain
  • bloody stool
  • dark-colored urine
  • jaundice
  • back pain
  • hypertension
  • possible organ failure and death

Diagnosing Carbon Tetrachloride Poisoning

Seek immediate medical assistance if you or someone you know has been exposed to this chemical without proper safety gear. If you are experiencing symptoms after contact, it may be a medical emergency.

Blood, urine, or tissue samples may be tested to make a diagnosis. However the combination of symptoms and a history of exposure is often a clear indicator of poisoning.

If toxic hepatitis is suspected, your physician may order blood tests or tissue biopsies to monitor liver function.

Treating Carbon Tetrachloride Poisoning

This type of poisoning is not reversible. Treatment is designed to minimize the effects of the poison. It is also used to ease symptoms. In extreme cases, life-saving measures may be needed to control breathing and regulate organ function. You may need artificial respiration.

If you are poisoned, you will probably be hospitalized. Medication can be used to make you more comfortable. It might include pain medication and anti-nausea drugs.

If you have swallowed liquid carbon tetrachloride, you may need surgery. Gastric lavage, or stomach pumping, can be used to remove the poison from your body.

In cases of severe poisoning, your organs may be damaged. If this happens, you might need dialysis or transplant surgery to save your life.

When You Go Home

If you have suffered organ damage, you may need to make lifestyle changes when you return home. If your liver has been damaged, you will be told to avoid:

  • fatty foods
  • alcohol
  • stimulant medications, such as ephedrine

You will also need to watch for any further symptoms of poisoning. Sometimes relapse can occur.

Long-Term Outlook of Carbon Tetrachloride Poisoning

Long-term outlook depends on the severity of exposure. Your overall health will also determine your recovery.

Minor poisoning in a healthy person may cause only temporary discomfort. However, immediate treatment is essential.

With larger exposures, poisoning becomes extremely dangerous. It can cause permanent damage or death.

Preventing Carbon Tetrachloride Poisoning

Many cases of workplace poisoning can be prevented with proper safety precautions. These include wearing appropriate masks and gloves around hazardous compounds.

Consumers should not use expired household cleaning agents, fire extinguishers, or pesticides. Carbon tetrachloride was commonly used in these products prior to 1986.

It is also a good idea to avoid toxic waste sites. If you live near a site where this chemical has been released, your drinking water can be tested for contamination.

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