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Chloroform, Its Toxicity and Mechanisms of Action Research Paper

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Updated: May 11th, 2021

Chloroform is an organic chemical known as trichloromethane. It is a colorless substance with a sweet smell but highly toxic. The chemical exists in the form of a dense liquid that is manufactured as the precursor to Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). The chemical is categorized among the most toxic substances, which target specific organs in the human body.

Toxic Effects

Target Organs

Animals and humans can absorb chloroform into their body through inhalation. If taken in large quantities, the substance can be highly toxic. The skin is one of the main body organs that can be exposed to the chemical. The skin of human beings and animals readily absorbs the chemical through dermal absorption. This occurs when a person is bathing or showering with water that contains chloroform. When the skin is hydrated, its chances of absorbing chloroform increase.

The chemical then penetrates into the body and causes the highest tissue levels in various body organs such as lungs, kidneys, and liver as well as the nervous system (Sasso et al. 367). The distribution of chloroform throughout the body depends on the level and route of exposure. For instance, when it is inhaled or absorbed through the skin extrahepatic tissues are highly affected.

The central nervous system is one of the main target organs in human beings and animals. This includes the above-mentioned organs when it is inhaled or drunk in a liquid. In the past, medical professionals used chloroform during surgical procedures before its harmful effects on the human kidney and liver were identified. Inhaling chloroform, drinking water or eating food that contains a large amount of the substance for a long period may cause serious damage to the kidneys and liver.

When a large amount of chloroform gets into contact with the skin, it can cause sores and irritation. Even though no research has indicated the adverse effects of the chemical on the human reproductive system, pregnant rats and mice suffer miscarriage when they inhale chloroform (Grant & Schuman 45). If the pregnancy survives, the offspring develops birth defects. On the other hand, long-term use of chlorinated is linked to the cancerous growth in the urinary bladder and colon.

Mechanisms of Action

Chloroform enters into the body through inhalation, ingestion, and dermal or skin exposure. When inhaled, chloroform causes serious toxicity in various organs. The highly concentrated vapor of chloroform causes irritation of the mucous membrane exposed to it. These include irritation of the nose and throat. The person immediately develops difficulty in breathing as the effects of the chemical interfere with the respiratory system.

When chloroform is used as an anesthetic drug, it might cause health problems such as hypothermia, respiratory acidosis, hyperglycemia, and depressed gastrointestinal tract motility. Other infections include spleen constriction, ketoacidosis, and increased count of leukocyte (International Agency for Research on Cancer 43).

Based on its ingestion, chloroform immediately causes irritation of the gastrointestinal. This includes severe pain of abdomen, vomiting, diarrhea, and nausea. Consequently, the body becomes weak as the entire digestion system is affected. The susceptibility to the effects of ingested chloroform differs from one individual to another. High doses can cause total damage to the key organs of the digestive system. In terms of dermal or skin exposure, the chloroform penetrates throughout the body to create systematic toxicity. At the site of contact with the skin, chloroform will instant create irritating sores, especially in delicate parts such as the neck and eyelid.

When accidentally splashed into the eyes, liquid chloroform can cause inflammatory pain and tearing effects to the eye for a few days. As it penetrates into the body through the skin, chloroform attacks other organs such as the liver and kidney as well as the respiratory system (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry 37). Direct contact between the chemical and water can also injure the corneal epithelium, although the effect is felt for a few days. The penetrating chloroform can also affect the central nervous system.


Acute Toxicity

The information on the acute toxicity of chloroform is based on the older studies that tested different levels of exposures. Some of the acute toxicity that has been identified is detected the strong odor, dizziness, vertigo, and headache (International Programme on Chemical Safety 14). Exposing the body to highly concentrated chloroform can create immediate health problems such as transient hepatic, renal toxicity, and cardiac arrhythmias.

On the other hand, previous research on the acute effects of chloroform toxicity has been focused on animals, especially rats and mice. The chemical’s acute toxicity in the animals is seen in their reproductive system, respiratory organs, liver, and kidneys (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 7).

Oral exposure of rats and mice to chloroform cause affects their nervous system and cause the brain tumor. Consequently, tumorigenic response to the concentrated chloroform causes the the death of cells as well as the proliferative renewal of cells. Another acute toxicity is its effects onon the animal’s reproductive system. Inhaled chloroform causes miscarriage or birth defects in rats and mice. Exposing human beings to high concentrations of the chemical induces narcosis, which is closely linked to the renal and hepatic effects (International Programme on Chemical Safety 39).

Chronic Toxicity

Chloroform is classified as a category 2B carcinogen substance. This implies that it might have carcinogenic effects on humans. One of the chronic toxicity of the chemical is that it might cause hepatic damage. It can also cause permanent damage and failure of respiratory organs, liver,, and kidneys if the inhaled or ingested chloroform has a high concentration. The chemical can also cause death when the effects are severe. In this sense, the main body organs might stop working and this can lead to terminal illnesses such as brain tumorstumors (World Health Organisation 12).

Overview of the Latest Research

The latest research shows that mammals, including the human being, can easily absorb, metabolize and eliminate chloroform at a rapid rate. The chemical gets access into their body systems through inhalation, oral and dermal exposures. During the metabolism in the presence of oxygen, chloroform is oxidized to produce carbon dioxide and other toxic substances such as phosgene and hydrochloric acid. It is believed that these toxic substances cause the health effects on human beings and animals. The recent research studies have indicated the effects of chloroform on the respiratory system, liver, kidneys and the central nervous system (National Poisons Information Service 102). Studies explore the possibility of ingested chloroform causing colon and urinary bladder cancer.


Humans and animals are exposed to chloroform in various ways. It can be inhaled in the form of vapor into the body organs and systems. It can be ingested with food or drinking water into the digestive system. Chloroform can also get into the body through dermal exposure. The target organs and systems include lungs, liver, kidneys and the central nervous system. Exposure to chloroform causes various health complications to humans and animals. As the research about the toxicity of chloroform continues, it is possible to determine other effects on humans and animals (International Programme on Chemical Safety 12).

Future Research Needs

The reproductive system is one of the most important functional structures of the body. The current research has determined the effects of chloroform on the reproductive system of mice and rats. It would be recommended for the researcher to explore the same on humans. The research should include the possibility of developing brain tumor when one is exposed to chloroform.

Works Cited

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Toxicological Profile for Chloroform. US Department of Health and Human Services: Atlanta, 1997. Print.

Grant, Mark and John Schuman. Toxicology of the Eye. Illinois: Charles C Thomas Publisher, 1993. Print.

International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Some Chemicals that Cause Tumours of the Kidney or Urinary Bladder in Rodents and Some Other Substances. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. IARC: Lyon, 1999. Print.

International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS). Chloroform. Concise International Chemical Assessment Document 58. WHO: Geneva, 2004. Print.

International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS). Chloroform. Environmental Health Criteria, WHO: Geneva, 1994. Print.

International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS). Chloroform. Poisons Information Monograph. PIM 121. WHO: Geneva, 2006. Print.

National Poisons Information Service (NPIS). Chloroform. TOXBASE 2004. Print.

Sasso, Allan. et al. “Application of An Updated Physiologically Based Pharmacokinetic Model For Chloroform To Evaluate CYP2E1-Mediated Renal Toxicity In Rats And Mice”. Toxicological Sciences, vol 131, no. 2, 2012, pp. 360-374. Oxford University Press (OUP). Web.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA). Toxicological Review of Chloroform 2001. Print.

World Health Organisation (WHO). Guidelines for Drinking-Water Quality: Recommendations. WHO: Geneva, 2004. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Chloroform, Its Toxicity and Mechanisms of Action'. 11 May.

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