Explained: What is antifreeze that has made US soldiers fall ill?

4 weeks ago
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Eleven US soldiers fell sick on Thursday after accidentally drinking ethylene glycol, a chemical found in antifreeze. According to a Reuters report, the soldiers from Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas were completing a 10-day field training exercise when the incident occurred.

The soldiers who consumed it thought that they were drinking an alcoholic beverage as per reports. The matter is now under investigation by the US Army Criminal Investigation Command, commonly known as the CID.

What is antifreeze?

Ethylene glycol is an industrial compound found in consumer products including automotive antifreeze, hydraulic brake fluids, some stamp pad inks, ballpoint pens, solvents, paints, plastics, films, and cosmetics and is also used as a pharmaceutical vehicle. It is a synthetic liquid, which is odourless and is used to make antifreeze and de-icing solutions for cars, airplanes and boats.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ethylene glycol has a sweet taste and is often accidentally or intentionally ingested.

Once ingested, ethylene glycol is chemically broken down into toxic compounds. These byproducts then affect the central nervous system (CNS), the heart and then the kidneys. CDC says that the ingestion of sufficient amounts can be fatal.

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Ethylene glycol can be disseminated through indoor air, water, food, outdoor air and agricultural products.

As per a case report of a 35-year-old man that presented with antifreeze poisoning, which was published in Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine in 2017, the patient mainly presented with nausea and agitation and did not lose consciousness. However, laboratory investigations suggested severe metabolic acidosis (a condition in which too much acid accumulates in the body), renal dysfunction and hyperkalemia (when the levels of potassium in the body are higher than normal).

This patient had consumed a high dose of antifreeze and was admitted to the hospital at a later stage. However, he was treated successfully and was discharged from the hospital after over a month.

Even so, depending on the quantity of ethylene glycol consumed, death can occur within the first 24 hours and permanent damage to the nervous system may also occur, which can cause blindness and decreased mental functioning.

As per a report in The New York Times, out of the 11 soldiers who fell sick, one is a warrant officer, two are noncommissioned officers and eight are enlisted soldiers.

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