Thanks, Science! A Kid-Friendly Antifreeze Alternative May Be On The Way

frozen car windowAfter a long, miserable winter, those of us who rely on cars to get around can all agree on the usefulness of antifreeze. The problem with the stuff, though, is its active ingredient, a chemical called ethylene glycol. While its name might not sound very appealing, ethylene glycol happens to have an extremely sweet flavor–one that both children and household pets find appealing. Since ethylene glycol is not only super-sweet but also super-toxic, researchers have long been looking for a less dangerous alternative that can be stored in a garage without temptation to little people. And now, they’ve finally found one … in the kitchen.

The Washington Post reported that researchers from ACTA Technology presented their idea for a solution at a meeting of the American Chemical Society on Wednesday. The big idea? Swap out the nasty ethylene glycol for a common, FDA-approved food additive called propylene glycol. Propylene glycol has a slightly different structure than its chemical cousin ethylene glycol, but that tiny change is enough to make it safe compared to ethylene glycol. It’s less sweet, so naturally less appealing to toddlers who refuse to put peas and carrots in their mouth but who are all too willing to shovel in whatever random things they find on the garage floor; and it’s much less toxic, too.

Having a potential replacement for old-school anti-freeze hits close to home for me; when I was a child, our puppy, and a few other dogs in our neighborhood, were poisoned by some asshole who poured antifreeze in the snow in pet owners’ yards up and down our street. Some of the dogs survived, but we lost Maggie, and we weren’t alone–according to the Humane Society, 90,000 pets and wild animals are killed by antifreeze every year, and on top of that, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 6,000 human poisonings in 2012. And it doesn’t require much of the stuff to put someone at serious risk, either–if a child so much as gets a lick of antifreeze, it’s enough for poison control to advise getting him to the hospital to make sure he’ll be all right.

It’ll be a few years before this new style antifreeze can hit the market. It’ll need a lot of design and testing, and the environmental impact of switching to propylene glycol isn’t nothing, either, since it can have a harmful effect on aquatic life if it gets into local ponds and streams. But a better and safer alternative would be a big deal to parents and pet owners. In the meantime, since this winter doesn’t seem to want to quit, keep an eye out for kids who have been playing around in the garage starting to act ‘drunk’ (more so than toddlers already stagger around and say weird things), vomiting, and hyperventilating–and we’ll wait out a safe antifreeze solution as well as a spring thaw.

(Image: AGrigorjeva / Getty)

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