Ethylene glycol, the primary ingredient in common antifreeze, is harmful if inhaled. Inhaling antifreeze fumes causes dizziness in some individuals. At high concentrations, ethylene glycol is toxic. Breathing the vapors also causes headaches, lower back pain and eye irritation.
If an individual is suffering from ethylene glycol inhalation, responders should move him to an area away from the fumes. If the fumes are affecting his eyes, the responder should use lukewarm water to remove the chemical from the eyes. If the victim is having difficulty breathing, responders should provide oxygen therapy.
The greatest danger from the toxic effects of ethylene glycol occurs when it is ingested. It has a sweet flavor, and antifreeze manufacturers give it a bright color, making it attractive to children and animals. Ingesting antifreeze causes a reaction similar to alcohol but without the characteristic alcohol odor. Antifreeze ingestion causes damage to the heart, kidneys and lungs and may result in death. It is also absorbed through the skin, with similar toxic effects.
An alternative type of antifreeze, based on propylene glycol, is also available. This type of antifreeze is less toxic to humans and pets. Propylene glycol requires a much larger volume to do the same damage. The label of the product informs consumers of the primary chemical used to supply the antifreeze properties.