Ethanol is present in alcoholic drinks (beer, wine, spirits) when diluted. It is used as a topical agent to prevent skin infections, in pharmaceutical preparations (e.g. rubbing compounds, lotions, tonics, colognes), cosmetics, and in perfumes. Ethanol may be present in fuels, labelled as ethanolblended fuels, and is used as an industrial solvent for fats, oils, waxes, resins, and hydrocarbons. It is used to make many chemical compounds, lacquers, plastics and plasticizers, rubber and rubber accelerators, aerosols, mouthwash products, soaps and cleaning preparations, polishes, surface coatings, dyes, inks, adhesives, preservatives, pesticides, explosives, petrol additives/substitutes, elastomers, antifreeze, yeast growth medium, human and veterinary medicines and as a dehydrating agent.
Substance name: Ethanol
CASR number: 64-17-5
Molecular formula: C2H6O
Synonyms: ethyl alcohol
Ethanol is a clear, colourless liquid with a characteristic pleasant odour and burning taste. It is highly flammable. Ethanol is used to dissolve other chemical substances and mixes readily with water and many organic liquids. Ethanol is considered a volatile organic compound by the National Pollutant Inventory.
Melting Point: -114°C
Boiling Point: 78.5°C
Specific gravity: 0.8
Flash point: 9-11°C
Ethanol rapidly absorbs water from the air. It mixes readily with most organic liquids.
The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) holds data for all sources of ethanol emissions in Australia.
Symptoms of exposure to ethanol may include irritation to the eyes, skin and nose, drowsiness and headache. Other symptoms may include stupor, nausea, mental excitement or depression, vomiting, flushing and coma. Exposure to high concentrations of ethanol vapours may cause irritation of the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, loss of coordination (ataxia), sleepiness, narcosis (stupor or unconsciousness), impaired perception and lack of coordination. It can also cause lowered inhibitions, dizziness, shallow respiration, unconsciousness and death. Ethanol is harmful by ingestion, inhalation or by skin absorption.
Repeated contact can dry the skin resulting in the skin cracking, peeling and itching.
Ethanol can depress the central nervous system, the eyes and upper respiratory tract (nose and throat). Ethanol can cause irritation, headache, fatigue and loss of concentration.
Consumption of ethanol during pregnancy may affect the unborn child, resulting in spontaneous abortion, developmental problems, or birth defects. This is known as 'foetal alcohol syndrome'. Chronic ingestion of ethanol may cause liver cirrhosis, affect the nervous system and affect the glands in humans.
Ethanol may cause mutations (genetic changes).
Ethanol is rapidly oxidised by the body to carbon dioxide and water, with no cumulative effect. Concentrations below 1000 parts per million (ppm) usually produce no signs of intoxication.
Entering the body
Ethanol can enter the body by ingestion, inhaling fumes or by absorption through the skin.
Exposure to ethanol can be from the intake of food or beverages containing alcohol or from a wide range of consumer products containing ethanol, or in from a wide range of industries that use or produce ethanol.
Ethanol is present in low levels in the environment, it is a natural product that results from the fermentation of plants.
Workplace exposure standards
Safe Work Australia sets the workplace exposure standard for ethanol through the workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants:
- Maximum eight hour time weighted average (TWA): 1000 parts per million (1880 mg/m3)
These standards are only appropriate for use in workplaces and are not limited to any specific industry or operation. Make sure you understand how to interpret the standards before you use them.
Drinking water guidelines
There is no guideline for ethanol in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.
At low concentrations and amounts, ethanol is rapidly metabolised without apparent harm. At higher concentrations, such as a result of leaks or spills, ethanol can have acute effects on a wide range of biota, where it may cause microbial death (ethanol is a disinfectant).
Entering the environment
Ethanol is carried in the water and air. It is soluble in water and is volatile, so it can be carried quite long distances.
Where it ends up
Ethanol will oxidise quickly (less than a few days), with carbon dioxide and water as the final products. However, ethanol can act as a precursor, leading to the formation of photochemical smog. Water or snow can wash the ethanol out of the atmosphere, but due to its volatility, ethanol will quickly re-enter the vapour phase. Ethanol present in soil or water will decompose in the presence of oxygen. Ethanol is a good nutrient and energy source for microbes. In the absence of oxygen, this can lead to the formation of methane.
Currently, there are no Australian environmental guidelines for ethanol.
Ethanol is produced as a result of manufacturing basic chemicals, beverages, food, bakery products, iron and steel products, plastic products, motor vehicles and vehicle parts, and industrial machinery and equipment.
Diffuse sources, and industry sources included in diffuse emissions data
Domestic and commercial solvents and aerosols are thought to be the highest sources of emissions of ethanol. Ethanol is present in architectural surface coatings, as a product of burning or fuel combustion activities (including fuel reduction and bushfires) and from landfill sites.
Ethanol is produced from a wide range of microbiological processes (by fungi and bacteria), and possibly from some plants.
Ethanol can be produced in the vehicle exhaust when it is used as a fuel additive or substitute. Ethanol can also result from evaporation of vehicle fuels from motors and fuel tanks.
Ethanol is present in alcoholic beverages, a wide range of cosmetic and personal grooming products, household cleaners and polishes, pharmaceutical products, disinfectants and insecticides, paints and paint products (such as thinners), products made from particle board, lubricating oils, household and industrial inks (including printed materials), and pet products.
Sources used in preparing this information
- Merck and Co. 2006, Merck Index, 14th Edition, USA.
- National Pollutant Inventory (1999), Contextual Information.
- New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet: Ethyl Alcohol, accessed May 2007.
- Technical Advisory Panel 1999, Final Report to the National Environment Protection Council.
- United Nations, International Chemical Safety Cards: Ethanol, accessed May 2007.
- Safe Work Australia, Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants, accessed June 2021.
- National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (2011) - Updated October 2017, accessed May 2018