Glycol ethers comprise a large group of solvents used industrially and in the home. The aromas emitted by glycol ether compounds run the gamut from odorless to quite strong. One form of glycol ether many women are familiar with is acetate-based fingernail polish remover. The compound is also found in dyes, inks, paints, stains, varnishes, and many specialized cleaning products. It’s a component of many cosmetics and perfumes.
The most common means of exposure to glycol ethers is by breathing in the fumes although contact exposure on the skin can be just as problematic. Glycol ethers are quickly absorbed by the skin so a splash or spill may leave no lasting mark on the skin even though a risky amount of it is absorbed internally.
As with its aroma, toxicity levels of glycol ethers vary widely. Overexposure can produce the euphoric feeling of drinking too much alcohol or cause anemia. It is an irritant of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin.
There has been very little testing on the effects of glycol ether exposure on the human reproductive system but animal studies indicate exposure can be hazardous to both the male and female reproductive systems. In laboratory experiments involving animals, birth defects and testicular damage were evident at lower levels of exposure than anticipated and there were no outward signs exposure was causing problems. There is growing evidence that professional painters are at risk of low sperm count due to their prolonged job-related exposure to glycol ethers.
Children who have bedrooms painted with glycol ether-containing paints experience a greater risk for asthma and allergies than children whose bedrooms are painted with different types of paint.
One form of this compound - propylene glycol ether - is thought to be relatively safe. Ethylene glycol ethers, especially those with the syllable “methyl” in their names, are the most toxic. Unfortunately, these designations aren’t always listed on product labels.
To Minimize Exposure
- Use these chemicals only in a well-ventilated room.
- Use protective gloves, safety glasses, clothing, and face shields.
- Flush any spills off the skin with cool running water.