What’s Diethylene Glycol?

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Diethylene glycol (DEG) is a versatile organic compound used in various industrial applications, including polyurethane plastic manufacturing, natural gas production, and as a solvent. It is also used in tobacco and cork manufacturing, printing inks, and glues. DEG has a high flash point, low freezing point, and high boiling point, making it useful for cooling and heat transfer. China consumes one-third of the worldwide demand for ethylene glycol, with monoethylene glycol (MEG) meeting 90% of the market needs. DEG is a precursor to MEG and triethylene glycol. DEG is also used in hair dyes and cleaners, but its health risks are well established, including nausea, vomiting, and brain damage. It is universally restricted from being used as a food additive.

Diethylene glycol, or DEG, is a colorless liquid organic compound at room temperature produced by the interaction of ethylene glycol and triethylene glycol. It is used in a wide variety of industrial applications, including as a compound in polyurethane plastic manufacturing, natural gas production, and as a solvent. Diethylene glycol’s ability to act as a humectant where it absorbs water or helps other materials do so has also led to its use in tobacco and cork manufacturing as well as printing inks and glues.

DEG is non-corrosive and has a high flash point of between 309° and 617° Fahrenheit (154°-325° Celsius), so it can be stored in stainless steel drums and does not catch fire easily. These traits, along with its low freezing point of 16° Fahrenheit (-9° Celsius) and high boiling point of between 473° and 885° Fahrenheit (245° to 474° Celsius) also give it uses in applications for cooling, such as for some antifreeze solutions and as a heat transfer fluid. Other high-stress applications for diethylene glycol include manufacturing explosives and as a brake and hydraulic fluid.

There is worldwide demand for nearly 24,000,000 tons of ethylene glycol annually as of 2010, and China consumes about one-third of this supply. Monoethylene glycol (MEG) meets 90% of the market needs, and diethylene glycol and triethylene glycol are produced as supplementary chemicals in the production process. Most of the MEG, about 85%, is used to make polyester fiber for clothing and related plastics. Production capacity has been increasing at a rapid pace and the world household chemical market, in 2010-2011, is estimated to be in excess of 3,500,000 tons.

A derivative compound using diethylene glycol, known as diethylene glycol monobutyl ether (DEGBE), is used as a solvent in hair dyes. It is being evaluated by the European Union through French research, for its safety where it is absorbed into the skin. A 2006 assessment has led to some French restrictions on its use, where concentrations of no more than 9% are allowed in hair products. By the mid-1990s, up to 50,000 tonnes of the chemical was being used in Europe as an ingredient in cleaners and surface coatings, such as paints.

The health risks of exposure to diethylene glycol itself are well established. Inhalation can cause nausea and vomiting, among many other symptoms, and ingestion can cause a form of alcohol poisoning and lead to seizures and death. Exposure is also known to have degenerative effects on many organs and biological systems in the human body, including brain damage. Due to the fact that diethylene glycol has been responsible for several cases of mass poisoning of people since 1937, it is universally restricted from being used as a food additive. However, the compound is present at a concentration of 0.2% as an impurity in polyethylene glycol, which is used as a food additive.

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