Is ethylene glycol biodegradable? (3 glycol related compounds).

This article shall answer the question of the biodegradability of ethylene glycol.

It shall also address other areas such as:

  • Biodegradation process.
  • Definition of ethylene glycol.
  • Uses of ethylene glycol.
  • Compounds related to ethylene glycol.
  • Eco-friendliness and toxicity of ethylene glycol.

Is ethylene glycol biodegradable?

Yes, ethylene glycol has some degree of biodegradation by the acinetobacter bacteria.

However, ethylene glycol is generally broken down by thermal oxidation to produce chemicals that cause acidity in water and soil.

Components of ethylene glycol. 

Ethylene glycol is an organic compound in the family of alcohol.

It is also called ethane-1,2-diol.

It is produced from ethylene (ethene) gas via an intermediate of ethylene oxide.

Ethylene oxide dissolves in water to form ethylene glycol.

The reaction of ethylene oxide with water to ethylene glycol is catalyzed by acids, and bases or can occur under high temperatures with neutral pH.

Properties of ethylene glycol.

The following are the properties of ethylene glycol.

  • It is a clear liquid.
  • It has a sweet taste.
  • It is slightly viscous.
  • It has a high boiling point of 198⁰ Celsius.
  • It is toxic.
  • It has low volatility.
  • It is hygroscopic.
  • It is miscible with water and other organic solvents.

Uses of ethylene glycol.

The uses of ethylene glycol are as follows:

  • It is used as an antifreeze agent in coolants.
  • When mixed with water, it prevents corrosion of air conditioners.
  • It is used as a de-icing agent for windshields.
  • It is used as an anti-crystallization component for organs and tissues preservatives.
  • It is used in the manufacturing of polyester polymers.
  • It is used to dehydrate natural gas.
  • Used to make capacitors.
  • Used as a component used to make dioxane
  • It is used to make some vaccines.
  • It is used to make shoe polish, inks, and dyes.

Ethylene glycol toxicity.

Ethylene has some toxic effects on mammals.

The toxicity of ethylene glycol is the same as that of methanal.

When ingested, it is broken down into glycolic acid which is then converted to oxalic acid; a toxic compound.

The toxicity of oxalic acid affects the kidneys, the heart, and the nervous system.

Other compounds produced in the process of producing ethylene glycol include:

  • Diethylene glycol.
  • Triethylene glycol.
  • tetramethylene glycol.
  • Polyethylene glycol.

Diethylene glycol. 

This is a colorless, odorless, and hygroscopic organic compound that has a sweet taste.

It is a dimer of ethylene glycol.

It is soluble in water, alcohol, ether, acetone, and ethylene glycol.

Diethylene glycol is a contaminant in consumer products and it leads to food poisoning.

Uses of diethylene glycol.

Diethylene glycol is used in the following ways:

  • In the manufacturing of polyester resins; both saturated and unsaturated.
  • It is used in the manufacturing of polyurethanes and plasticizers.
  • It is used in the synthesis of organic substances such as morpholine and dioxane.
  • It is used in the manufacturing of oils and dyes.
  • Due to its hygroscopic property, it is used as a humectant for glue, cork, tobacco, and ink.
  • It is used in making lubricants and brake fluids.
  • It is used in small quantities as an antifreeze.
  • Used in making cooking or heating fuel.
Diethylene glycol toxicology.

Diethylene glycol is not allowed in food additives and drugs.

There have been studies and tests that show diethylene glycol is poisonous to human beings.

Diethylene glycol is broken down in the body into hydroxyethyl acetic acid (HEAA).

HEAA and excess diethylene glycol are reabsorbed into the body in the glomerular filtration in the kidneys.

This accumulation of diethylene glycol and HEAA leads to renal problems.

The signs and symptoms of diethylene glycol poisoning include:

  • Nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.
  • Metabolic acidosis, acute kidney failure, anuria, hypertension, tachycardia, cardiac dysrhythmia, pancreatitis, and hyperkalemia.
  • Lethargy, facial paralysis, dysphonia, and coma.

Triethylene glycol.

This is an organic compound that is colorless, odorless, and viscous.

It is a trimer of ethylene glycol.

Properties of triethylene glycol.

The following are the properties of tri-ethylene glycol:

  • It is colorless and odorless.
  • It has a high viscosity.
  • It has a high boiling point.
  • It is hygroscopic.
  • It is miscible with water of 286⁰ Celsius.
  • It is soluble in organic solvents such as ethanol, acetone, acetic acid, and aldehydes.
  • It is insoluble in oil and fats.
Uses of tri-ethylene glycol.

The following are the uses of tri-ethylene glycol.

  • It is used to dehydrate natural gas, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide since it is hygroscopic.
  • It is used as a mild disinfectant against bacteria, influenza A viruses, and Penicillium notatum fungi.
  • It is used as a plasticizer for the synthesis of vinyl polymers.
  • It is used to make air sanitizers.
  • It is used as a desiccant for natural gas.
  • It is used as an additive for hydraulic fluids and brake fluids.
tetraethylene glycol.

Tetraethylene glycol is a compound that contains several ethylene glycol molecules. >expand this info.

Properties of tetraethylene glycol.

The properties of tetraethylene glycol include the following:

  • It is transparent.
  • It is odorless.
  • It is colorless.
  • It has low volatility.
  • It has a moderate viscosity.
  • It is hygroscopic.
  • It is completely miscible in water.
  • It is miscible with most organic liquids.
  • It has a high boiling point.
Uses of tetraethylene glycol.

The following are the uses of tetraethylene glycol.

  • It is used in making polyester resins.
  • It is used as a plasticizer in making polymers.
  • It is used as a solvent in ink and dye production.

What is biodegradation?

Biodegradation is the process by which natural organic materials are broken down into small particles, water, and carbon dioxide by microorganisms.

Some microorganisms produce methane instead of carbon dioxide, depending on the material broken down or their biological machinery.

The agents of biodegradation include:

  • Water.
  • Sunlight.
  • Temperature.
  • Bacteria.
  • Fungi.


This causes biodegradation by carrying the materials and causing mechanical breakdown.


Some light radiation such as ultraviolet radiation can cause the mechanical breakdown of organic materials into smaller particles.


Temperature causes the expansion and contraction of organic materials.

This causes the material to experience stress which in return results in mechanical breakdown.


Bacteria break down organic material through the process of respiration to form small particles which they use to acquire energy.

The most common and active bacteria include:

  • Pseudomonas.
  • Bacillus.
  • Mycobacteria.


They break down organic matter into small particles which they then assimilate into their body systems.

They include:

  • Yeasts.
  • Mushrooms
  • Molds.
  • Mildew.
  • Lichens.

Biodegradation of ethylene glycol.

Having looked at the properties of ethylene glycol and the biodegradation process, it is easy to understand why ethylene glycol and its immediate primers are not degraded by microorganisms.

Ethylene and primers such as diethylene glycol, triethylene glycol, and triethylene glycol have disinfection properties.

The disinfection properties affect bacteria such as bacteria and Penicillium notatum which are major agents of biodegradation.

The degradation of ethylene glycol is mostly through thermal oxidation.

Under high temperatures, ethylene glycol breaks down to its constituent elements such as ethene and ethylene oxide.

Is ethylene glycol eco-friendly?

Ethylene is used in many areas such as in airports

The use of ethylene in low concentrations is non-toxic to the environment.

In the environment,  Ethylene glycol breaks down to ethylene glycol-related compounds such as diethylene and triethylene glycol.

According to a study report, usage of high doses of ethylene glycol exposes the environment to toxicity since, at high concentrations, ethylene glycol is considered a teratogen.

Teratogens are toxic compounds that cause physiological disorders in plants and animals.

Ethylene glycol affects the backbone and skeletal development of rats and mice.


This article has answered the question, “is ethylene glycol biodegradable?”.

It has also covered other areas such as:

  • Biodegradation process.
  • Types of compounds associated with ethylene glycol.
  • Eco-friendliness and toxicity of ethylene glycol.

For any questions or comments please use the comment section below.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): is ethylene glycol biodegradable?

Can ethylene glycol be poured down the drain?

No, ethylene glycol is toxic to the environment when its concentration rises.

Its toxicity causes skeletal disorders in mammals and also affects plants.

Does ethylene glycol dissociate in water?

Yes, ethylene glycol dissociates in water into its intermediate compounds such as diethylene glycol and triethylene glycol.

Why is ethylene glycol toxic?

The metabolic products of ethylene glycol such as oxalic acid are toxic to the body of mammals and cause such disorders as heart problems and kidney problems.


Siegfried Rebsdat; Dieter Mayer. “Ethylene Glycol”. Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH. doi:10.1002/14356007.a10_101

Schep LJ, Slaughter RJ, Temple WA, Beasley DM (2009). “Diethylene glycol poisoning”. Clin Toxicol. 47 (6): 525–35. doi:10.1080/15563650903086444

Robertson OH, Puck TT, Lemon HF, Clayton GL (1943). “The lethal effect of triethylene glycol vapor on air-borne bacteria and influenza virus”. Science. 97 (2510): 142–144. doi:10.1126/science.97.2510.142. 

Lucas N, Bienaime C, Belloy C, Queneudec M, Silvestre F, Nava-Saucedo JE (September 2008). “Polymer biodegradation: mechanisms and estimation techniques”. Chemosphere. 73 (4): 429–42. doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2008.06.064. 

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