Toxicity

Most information on the toxicity of glycol ethers concerns EGME, EGEE and EGBE. There is only limited information on the other glycol ethers and even less on their acetates. However, it is clear that these compounds, although apparently similar in the effects they may cause, differ in the severity. Generally:

• The diethylene glycol ethers are less toxic than the ethylene glycol ethers (Harbison, 1998). They are less irritant to the skin with less percutaneous toxicity than the ethylene glycol ethers (Ballantyne and Myers, 1987).

• The triethylene glycols are less toxic than the diethylene glycols (NIOSH, 1980).

• The toxicity of the glycol ether acetates is similar to the parent compound as the ester linkage is rapidly hydrolysed.

• Some glycol ethers (e.g., propylene glycol monomethyl ether (PGME) and its acetate) appear to be metabolised differently compared to ethylene glycol ethers and, since it is the metabolites which are responsible for toxicity, may, as a result, be less toxic than the ethylene glycol ethers (Miller et al., 1981; 1983; 1984a; 1984b).

Toxicity from exposure to glycol ethers was first observed in the 1930s when EGME was used for the manufacture of stiffened or 'fused' shirt collars (Donley, 1936; Greenberg et al., 1938; Parsons and Parsons, 1938). The reports described workers with encephalopathy and bone marrow depression.

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