|Both propylene glycol and ethylene glycol are used to make antifreeze and de-icing solutions for cars, airplanes, and boats; to make polyester compounds; and as solvents in the paint and plastics industries. Ethylene glycol is also an ingredient in photographic developing solutions, hydraulic brake fluids and in inks used in stamp pads, ballpoint pens, and print shops. |
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified propylene glycol as an additive that is “generally recognized as safe” for use in food. It is used to absorb extra water and maintain moisture in certain medicines, cosmetics, or food products. It is a solvent for food colours and flavours.
Propylene glycol is also used to create artificial smoke or fog used in fire-fighting training and in theatrical productions.
What happens to ethylene glycol and propylene glycol when they enter the environment?
- Neither compound is likely to exist in large amounts in air.
- About half of the compounds that enter the air will break down in 24–50 hours.
- Both compounds break down within several days to a week in water and soil.
How might I be exposed to ethylene glycol and propylene glycol?
- You can be exposed to ethylene glycol when you use antifreeze, photographic developing solutions, coolants, and brake fluid.
- You can be exposed to propylene glycol by eating food products, using cosmetics, or taking medicine that contains it.
- If you work in an industry that uses ethylene glycol or propylene glycol, you could be exposed by breathing or touching these substances.
How can ethylene glycol and propylene glycol affect my health?
Eating or drinking very large amounts of ethylene glycol can result in death, while large amounts can result in nausea, convulsions, slurred speech, disorientation, and heart and kidney problems.
Female animals that ate large amounts of ethylene glycol had babies with birth defects, while male animals had reduced sperm counts. However, these effects were seen at very high levels and would not be expected in people exposed to lower levels at hazardous waste sites.
Ethylene glycol affects the body's chemistry by increasing the amount of acid, resulting in metabolic problems. Similar to ethylene glycol, propylene glycol increases the amount of acid in the body. However, larger amounts of propylene glycol are needed to cause this effect.
How likely are ethylene glycol and propylene glycol to cause cancer?
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the EPA have not classified ethylene glycol and propylene glycol for carcinogenicity. Studies with people who used ethylene glycol did not show carcinogenic effects. Animal studies also have not shown these chemicals to be carcinogens.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to ethylene glycol and propylene glycol?
Tests are available to determine if you have been exposed to ethylene glycol. These tests are only used on people who are showing symptoms of ethylene glycol poisoning (but they could be used in other situations). The tests are most often used on people who have intentionally consumed, or who suspect they have consumed, large amounts of ethylene glycol.
Propylene glycol is generally considered to be a safe chemical, and is not routinely tested for, unless specific exposure, such as to a medicine or cosmetic, can be linked with symptoms. Since both propylene glycol and ethylene glycol break down very quickly in the body, they are very difficult to detect, even though symptoms may be present.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The EPA has set a drinking water guideline for ethylene glycol of 7,000 micrograms (7,000 µg/L) in a litre of water for an adult.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified propylene glycol as “generally recognized as "safe",” which means that it is acceptable for use in flavourings, drugs, and cosmetics, and as a direct food additive.
The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) recommends a maximum level of 127 milligrams of ethylene glycol per cubic meter of air (127 mg/m3) for a 15-minute exposure.
Acid: A sour substance.
Carcinogenicity: Ability to cause cancer.
CAS: Chemical Abstracts Service.
Metabolic: Chemical changes in cells that provide energy to the body.
Synthetic: Made by humans.
Source of Information
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 1997. Toxicological profile for ethylene glycol and propylene glycol. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Animal testing is sometimes necessary to find out how toxic substances might harm people and how to treat people who have been exposed. Laws today protect the welfare of research animals and scientists must follow strict guidelines.
Where can I get more information?
ATSDR can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances such as propylene glycol and ethylene glycol. You can also contact your community or state health or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns.
Information reproduced courtesy of
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
- Division of Toxicology
- 1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop E-29
- Atlanta, GA 30333
- Phone: 1-888-422-8737
- FAX: (404)498-0057