What Are Routes of Exposure to Ethylene Glycol?

Course: WB 4342
CE Original Date: March 20, 2020
CE Expiration Date: March 20, 2022
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Learning Objectives

After completing this section, you will be able to identify the most common route of exposure to ethylene glycol that results in toxicity in the general U.S. population.

Introduction

Accidental or intentional ingestion of antifreeze is the most common route of exposure leading to ethylene glycol toxicity, resulting in thousands of poisonings reported each year in the United States (AAPCC 2016; ATSDR 2010).

Ethylene glycol is not expected to be found in the environment away from areas where it is released. Outside of those areas, the general public has little risk for exposure through air, drinking water, or skin contact with water or soil.

Dermal

Skin contact is the most likely route of occupational exposure. However, dermal absorption is limited and exposure by this route is generally not likely to lead to toxic effects.

Dermal exposure to ethylene glycol may occur while handling

  • automotive antifreezes,
  • coolants, and
  • brake fluids.

Such exposures are not likely to cause adverse health effects.

Inhalation

Ethylene glycol’s low vapor pressure precludes substantial inhalation exposure at ambient temperatures in the environment (Howard PH 1991). Upper respiratory tract irritation is possible when the liquid is heated, agitated, or sprayed.

Ingestion

Accidental or intentional ingestion of antifreeze is the most common route of exposure leading to ethylene glycol toxicity, resulting in thousands of poisonings reported each year in the United States (AAPCC 2016; ATSDR 2010)].

In the general U.S. population, ethylene glycol exposure occurs most commonly through antifreeze ingestion. Annual reports of the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) have reported

  • 6,600 ethylene glycol exposures and 16 deaths in 2013,
  • 6,809 ethylene glycol exposures and 26 deaths in 2014, and
  • 6,895 ethylene glycol exposures and 22 deaths in 2015.
Key Points
  • Accidental or intentional ingestion of antifreeze is the most common route of exposure leading to ethylene glycol toxicity, resulting in thousands of poisonings reported each year in the United States.
  • Inhalation of ambient air, ingestion of drinking water, or skin contact with water or soil are not expected to be significant routes of exposure for the general U.S. population.

To review relevant content, see “Ingestion” in this section.

Page last reviewed: October 7, 2020