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What are glycol ethers?
Glycol ethers form a varied family of more than 30 solvents. All these glycol ethers have different properties – and are therefore fit for different uses. Traditionally, a distinction is made between two main groups of glycol ethers: E series and P series, depending on whether they are made from ethylene or propylene. In each group, different derivatives have been developed to provide the properties of solubility, volatility, compatibility and inflammability required for the applications.
What are the properties of glycol ethers?
The "glycol ethers" are not only a large family of products, they also possess a large range of properties. The main properties are good solubility in water, most organic solvents, and oils. For instance, glycol ethers can provide the following technical benefits:
  • improve the wetting properties of water-based products
  • impart good long-term stability and shelf-life of products
  • whilst at the same time
  • working at low concentrations
  • having little odour
What are glycol ethers used for?
Glycol ethers have a very diverse range of uses. Currently, the most widespread use of glycol ethers is in surface coatings and inks. Many water-based coatings (both for consumers and in industry) would not function without glycol ethers. Glycol ethers are found in applications as diverse as decorative consumer paints and the painting operations of car manufacturers. Other important coating types include can and wood coatings, coil and anticorrosion coatings. Glycol ethers are also used in adhesives and inks, particularly in screen printing. Other important applications include cleaning products, cosmetics, specialty chemical manufacture (including pharmaceuticals), electronics manufacture, leather goods manufacture and hydraulic fluids (e.g. brake fluids). Smaller uses include manufacture of fire fighting foams, agricultural products and in the paper, textile, rubber and construction industries.
Do glycol ethers present risks for the environment?
All international research and evaluations show that glycol ethers do not accumulate in the environment. In the atmosphere they break down in the air within hours by photolysis (= breakdown reaction triggered by sunlight) whilst in the aquatic environment, all are at least inherently biodegradable and most readily biodegradable, meaning that they are biodegradable within hours in a waste water treatment plant or within days in the wider environment.
Do glycol ethers present health risks for people?
Glycol ethers constitute a varied family of more than 30 different solvents which, whilst having similar physical properties do differ when it comes to technical characteristics or toxicity profiles. Glycol ethers used in consumer products or for professional applications have been extensively tested and, if used in accordance with the manufacturers' instructions and under the right conditions present no risk to health. Under the most recent chemicals' legislation (REACH Regulation EC No 1907/2006), users of hazardous chemicals are obliged to assess the risks at the workplace and to take it the required protection measures. In addition EU law requires that legal workplace exposure limits for chemicals, including glycol ethers, are observed.
Are all glycol ethers the same?
No, there are two families of glycol ethers, the E series (made from ethylene oxide) and the P series (made from propylene oxide). Two of the E series glycol ethers, methoxyethanol and ethoxyethanol, are known to be toxic to reproduction in humans. For this reason, they are restricted by law from use in consumer products and EU manufacturers will only supply for use in a very limited number of industrial applications (use for the manufacture of other chemicals or pharmaceuticals) where use is under strictly controlled conditions.
Why do I see some reports that glycol ethers are toxic?
As described above, the glycol ethers family is large and a very small number of them have known and well understood toxic properties. This can lead to misunderstanding and the assumption that the properties of one or two are shared by all the others. This is clearly not the case as shown by the large amount of hazard data available and a number of regulatory reviews.