Ethylene Glycol - ChemicalSafetyFacts.org

Ethylene Glycol

Ethylene glycol is a clear, viscous liquid primarily used in industrial manufacturing applications, and also is an ingredient in products like automotive antifreeze and coolant. Ethylene glycol is produced by reacting the chemical compound ethylene oxide with water.

Uses & Benefits

Industrial Applications

The primary use of ethylene glycol is for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic resin used to make beverage containers for soda, water and juice, and polyester fiber for clothes, upholstery, carpet, and pillows.  Ethylene glycol has a variety of other industrial uses, including:

  • The manufacture of fiberglass used to make products such as jet skis, bathtubs and bowling balls.
  • The manufacture of ink for ballpoint pens and other inks. Ethylene glycol helps increase ink viscosity and makes it less likely to evaporate.
  • Heat transfer fluids such as industrial coolants for gas compressors, heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems and ice skating rinks. Ethylene glycol gives industrial coolants properties that help them flow through cooling systems while withstanding extreme hot and cold temperatures.

Transportation Applications

Ethylene glycol is a key ingredient in automotive antifreeze and coolant, to help keep a car’s engine from overheating and from freezing in the winter. Ethylene glycol is a major component of deicing solutions used in a variety of transportation applications, including cars, boats and aircraft, as well as on airport runways during the cold winter months. Ethylene glycol also is an ingredient in hydraulic brake fluid products.

Safety Information

A person could be exposed to ethylene glycol through skin contact when using automobile antifreeze. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), skin contact with a very small amount of ethylene glycol in conditions like these “will not affect your health.” Ethylene glycol can be poisonous if ingested. Many states now require the addition of a bittering agent to antifreeze to help prevent the ingestion of antifreeze.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not set a permissible exposure limit for ethylene glycol. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) recommends a ceiling exposure limit of 100 milligrams/cubic meters (m3) or 39.4 ppm (parts per million).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved ethylene glycol as an indirect food additive, for use as a component of adhesives used in food packaging.

Answering Questions

What is ethylene glycol poisoning?

Ingesting ethylene glycol can cause serious illness. The first symptom of ethylene glycol ingestion is similar to the feeling caused by drinking alcohol (ethanol). Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, convulsions, stupor or unconsciousness, according to the CDC.

If you suspect possible ethylene glycol poisoning, seek emergency care immediately. Call the national Poison Control Center Hotline: 1-800-222-1222, and be sure to have the label from the product ingested in hand.

What are the differences between ethylene glycol and propylene glycol?

Both ethylene glycol and propylene glycol belong to the family of glycol alcohols. Propylene glycol is also “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) additive for flavorings, foods, cosmetics and medications, according to the FDA, meaning that no adverse health effects are likely to occur from normal use of these products containing propylene glycol.