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USEPA Goes After Glycol Ethers and Other “Glymes”

08 Aug 2011 3:16 AM | Keiji Obata (Administrator)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it plans to clamp down on glycol ethers (“glymes” for short). These little known ingredients are used by a broad array of industries, including manufacturers of lithium batteries, inkjet cartridges, paints, printing, prescription drugs and microchips.

The EPA determined that three of these glymes pose a high concern to workers, consumers and children” because they may have reproductive or developmental effects. A U.S.  study more than a decade ago found links to miscarriages among workers in semiconductor manufacturing.  The EPA has proposed a new rule for glymes as one of its few weapons authorized by the federal Toxic Substances Control Act. If adopted, it would let the agency restrict new uses of 14 glymes in the U.S. marketplace.  Glymes are members of a broad family of chemicals called “glycol ethers” typically used as solvents in manufacturing.  In offset printing glymes like ethelene glycol N Butyl ether and ethylene glycol mono-butyl ether are used in so called “alcohol free” fountain solutions. The health warnings for these chemicals caution exposure through contact with eyes, skin, inhalation and ingestion. As an irritant they target the eyes, skin, blood, kidneys, liver and lymphoid system and central nervous system. The USEPA considers these chemicals a volatile organic compound (VOC) and hazardous air pollutant (HAP) which are regulated as a hazardous waste.

Two other glymes– monoglyme and diglyme – caused reproductive and developmental damage in rodent studies. Animal studies on a third glyme, ethylglyme, show developmental toxicity as well as the potential for gene mutation.  Glymes have come under U.S. government scrutiny as particularly hazardous to workers, including those that manufacture semiconductors, printing ink, automotive care products, paints and pharmaceuticals.

A study of 6,000 workers in 14 plants led by scientists from the University of California, Davis in the late 1980s and early1990s linked glyme mixtures to miscarriages among semiconductor manufacturing workers.  The researchers found a pattern of increased miscarriages among women exposed to mixtures of ethylene-based glycol ethers including diglyme. The results of the multi-year study paid for by the Semiconductor Industry Association were published in 1995 in a full issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

“I’m glad to see attention being paid to this because the agents are no less toxic than they were 10 years ago,” said Dr. Marc B. Schenker, a UC Davis professor of medicine and chairman of the Department of Public Health Sciences, who led the study.

Even though the use of these chemicals is regulated, little is known about how much the public is exposed to glymes through consumer products and their release into the environment.  Agency officials say new uses could increase people’s exposure through skin absorption or inhalation. Diglyme has been detected in drinking water, so consumption is a possible route, too, they say. While exposure to monoglyme in lithium batteries is limited because batteries are sealed, there is possible exposure from handling polishing clothes, printed paper and breathing emissions from a household paint can, vehicle exhaust or factories.

Printers who print waterless should be very happy they changed over to the process. That’s because, unlike conventional printers, waterless ones don’t have to deal with press fountain chemistry at all.

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