Get to know the ingredients in your household cleaners.
By Stacy Peltier
What is it?
2-butoxyethanol has a plethora of unpronounceable names, and so is commonly abbreviated as simply BE or EGBE (for ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, if you must know). This organic compound can be found in the air, water, or soil, but most important is its solubility property. When 2-butoxyethanol is mixed with water or other organic solvents, it form a single layer – unlike a mixture of oil and water where the oil sits separately on top. It is usually found as a solvent in general surface cleaners, window cleaners, floor strippers, and spot and rust removers.
Why is it used in household cleaners?
EGBE is an inexpensive solvent that doesn’t evaporate easily. This, combined with its modest surfactant properties, makes it an easy ingredient for companies to use in basic household cleaners and degreasers.
How can it be toxic?
Mehhh, the severity of 2-butoxyethanol is still pretty questionable. Acute exposure can certainly cause irritation in the eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory system, but most studies conclude that the general public has minimal health risks associated with EGBE. Most of the toxicity scare is based on the fact that it is in a chemical group called the “glycol ethers,” of which other members can cause reduced sperm counts in men and reproductive or birth defects in women. However, these effects due specifically to EGBE can only be found in tests conducted on animals – each of which shows a markedly harsher result than the same tests conducted on humans.
Environmental risk is also low since 2-butoxyethanol is biodegradable, has a low toxicity to aquatic organisms, does not bioaccumulate, and can decompose in the presence of air within a few days of exposure. The danger here may lie in landfills, where the ingredient could leach into groundwater. But once again, the known risks are minimal.
So, what can I do about it?
Although the health risks of this toxin are relatively low, it’s probably better to play it safe. Most harmful effects are caused by inhaling or ingesting the chemical, so always wear a mask and spray your cleaners in a well-ventilated room. Want to cut it out altogether? Clean mirrors and windows with newspaper and diluted vinegar and stick to simple, green cleaning products. Google search how to make your own formulas using natural household items like baking soda and essential oils.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (1999).
- United Nations Environment Programme, World Health Organization (1998). http://www.who.int/ipcs/publications/cicad/cicad_10_revised.pdf
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2000). http://www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/hlthef/glycolet.html