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Scare stories?16th of March 2011
As part of this edition’s special report on ‘green’ cleaning, Activeion Europe examines the issue of glycol ethers, which are used in the manufacture of many cleaning chemicals. Their safe use has been the subject of much discussion and controversy over the last 20 years, and research is continuing.
Readers old enough to have been reading the cleaning trade press in the late 1980s, or to have been habitual readers of New Scientist, Scientific American or other general science news a little earlier, may recall the last time that glycol ethers and their potential health dangers were big news. Although the use of glycol ethers in cleaning products, paints and inks had at that time already been decreasing rapidly since the first time the story broke, in the early 1960s, this was a story that had legs, as they say in the journalistic trade, and did it run!
National newspapers ran major articles warning the public that cleaning chemicals they bought in supermarkets could cause them to have deformed children. Women’s magazines warned that products readers used to clean bathrooms could cause or exacerbate childhood asthma. Management magazines warned employers that pregnant employees could put their unborn babies at risk by coming to work if the office cleaners used products containing glycol ethers.
Cleaning chemical manufacturers’ trade bodies defended their members and their honour by issuing statements explaining that all glycol ethers were not toxic, and that only four had definable serious health risks. Cleaning bodies’ representatives appeared on news bulletins, professional ‘experts’ earned well explaining the situation.
And then it stopped. The media got tired of the whole thing. Other scares and scandals took over the scientific pages and news airtime. Manufacturers’ and users’ associations took a deep breath and, over the next few years, improved the controls and standards that regulated the use of glycol ethers, and continued making somewhat safer chemical cleaning products.
But a generation later, is it happening again? In October 2010, a daily newspaper in the UK ran an article headlined ‘Bedroom chemicals ‘raise child’s allergy risk by up to 180 per cent’. It stated a Swedish study* had shown that youngsters had up to 180 per cent greater risk of developing allergies if they were exposed to chemicals known as PGEs in their bedrooms.
It went on to say: the study shows for the first time that the concentration of PGEs, propylene glycol and glycol ethers, in bedroom air was linked to an increased risk of developing asthma, rhinitis and eczema in children.
The articles included references to water-based paints, plastic toys and packaging. This was familiar and by no means inaccurate ground. Follow-up internet research quickly found many sites commenting on the risks of cleaning products containing glycol ethers (see www.wellnessuncovered.com).
Most of them demonstrated the familiar pattern of protesters’ and campaigners’ web sites, emphasising information that supported the writer’s position and largely ignoring data that ran counter to it. In the USA, there is clearly a major and indiscriminate campaign growing against the use of glycol ethers. As with the weather, what is happening in the USA this month has a way of happening in Europe next month. We need to be prepared.
How should industry respond?
If you are in the commercial cleaning industry, or are a facilities manager, it is likely that, before too long, you will be asked what you are doing to prevent products containing glycol ethers being used where you clean, or in the premises you manage. How do you respond? The key thing is to know the important facts.
The purpose of glycol ethers - There are more than 30 different industrially manufactured glycol ethers, divided into two groups according to the raw chemical from which they are made. The E- series is derived from ethylene, the P-series from propylene. Each series is sub-divided into glycol ethers and glycol ether esters. They are all colourless and in most cases odourless liquids which have varying solubility in water and oils, and varying volatility, according to their individual formulas. Among other things, glycol ethers are used as a fixative for perfumes, germicides, bactericides, insect repellents and antiseptics.
Glycol ethers’ principal purpose in cleaning products arises from their solubility in both water and in traditional solvents, and enables them to act as couplers between ingredients that would be incompatible if the glycol ether was not present.
These properties can be difficult to replace with other chemicals, but modern computer search facilities have made it possible for industrial chemists usually to find adequate replacements within the Glycol ether families when toxicity or risk to human beings has been suspected or established. For this reason, the risks that websites warn of have almost always been eradicated during the last decade or two.
Health risks of glycol ethers - Scaremonger web sites usually refer incorrectly to all glycol ethers as dangerous or harmful. However, past studies of animals exposed to very high levels of methyl alcohol and/or ethyl glycol (often hundreds of times higher than industrial exposures) have identified effects on blood structure, on blood producing tissues, on the male reproductive systems and on embryos. Human beings are not and have not been occupationally exposed to high levels of methyl and ethyl glycol and their acetates.
How are glycol ethers regulated? A harmonised classification applies throughout the European Union to these four dangerous glycol ethers and individual countries cannot make local changes.
A legally obligatory label must be used when the concentration exceeds 0.5 per cent in the finished product. This label has a skull and crossbones on an orange background and the words ‘Toxic’ plus the phrase ‘may cause harm to the unborn child’. Sales to the general public of products bearing this label are prohibited, and a safety data sheet must accompany every container. Other detailed EU classifications of minor toxicity in 19 other glycol ethers can be found at www.fipec.org, the website of the Fédération des Industries des Peintures, Encres, Couleurs, Colles et Adhésifs.
So if your cleaning products have that label, they contain one of the key four glycol ethers in a concentration of more than 0.5 per cent of volume – still a very low concentration. In most circumstances that, used according to the instructions, will be harmless, but anyone handling products so labelled should wear a face mask, ventilate the working area thoroughly by opening windows, and take precautions to avoid the product touching their skin or getting in their eyes. A face mask, long rubber gloves and goggles should do the trick.
When challenges to the cleaning industry’s use of products containing glycol ethers arise, first explain the facts, roughly as above. But also emphasise the point that, in virtually every case the industry manufacturing these raw materials will have found and adopted a glycol ether alternative with the appropriate properties soon after every risk was identified. The chemicals industry, like the cleaning industry has no wish to harm those who use its products, or who come into contact with the products where they work.
There have been ongoing research programmes in several countries into the safe use of glycol ethers during the past 20 years. A study by P de Kettenis in Belgium ‘The historic and current use of glycol ethers: a picture of change’ is available for purchase at www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=….
There is also excellent advice on the use of products containing glycol ethers, specifically ethylene glycol monobutyl ether (EGBE), at http://www.coastwidelabs.com/Technical%20Articles/EGBE.htm.
Large-scale exporting of glycol ethers from China is raising concerns in the USA about quality control, and some of the recent publicity centred on these concerns may have been the cause of the ill-informed campaign against all glycol ethers mentioned at the beginning of this article. It cannot be long before public concerns in the USA cause new research programmes to be launched.
*Carl-Gustaf Bornehag, professor of public health science at Karlstad University and associated with the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden.
•Activeion is the producer of the ionator EXP chemical-free cleaning system - a handheld tool that converts tap water into ionised water for the removal of dirt. Visit www.activeion.com for more information.