Diethylene Glycol: A History Lesson

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When the FDA ran a basic series of tests on a couple electronic cigarettes in 2009, the chief substance they found that would profoundly damage the image of all future e-cigs was diethylene glycol (die-ethi-leen or DEG for short).1  The study has been called into question for its limited scope, limited sample size, and almost immediately out-dated results.

The public statement by the FDA that electronic cigarettes contain diethylene glycol has been used by lazy media, politicians, and anti-smoking advocates as proof that the devices are toxic, potentially deadly, and probably as bad as conventional cigarettes.

The comparison is generally made to anti-freeze.  DEG is in anti-freeze.  E-cigs must be as bad as anti-freeze. The e-cig community and individuals that do more research than just a biased Google search know better.  Based on more comprehensive research since, experts believe that e-cig use is about 2% as harmful as smoking.

Interestingly enough, DEG is one of the major reasons the FDA has the powers that it does today.

In 1937 a drug company called S.E. Massengill produced an untested, raspberry-flavored antibiotic it called Elixir Sulfanilamide.  By today’s standards, the name would have been a marketing nightmare, but people bought the drug from the company which by then was nearly 40 years old.  105 people died and the trail quickly led straight to Elixir Sulfanilamide.2

Diethylene glycol had been known to kill someone as far back as 1930.  However, medical and pharmaceutical knowledge was not as easy to share and spread then.  So Massengill scientists didn’t know.  Pre-market and animal testing would have quickly revealed an issue, but none was required.

The FDA existed at this time, but it’s powers were a bit limited in scope.  In fact, the reason the FDA could take measures to remove Elixir Sulfanilamide from the market had nothing to do with its contents or purpose.  It was because elixir was in the name.  The exact same product having been called Solution Sulfanilamide would have been beyond the organization’s reach.

This event became the singular reason for the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.3 The act expanded FDA powers of enforcement, required further testing of products pre-market, and allowed inspections of operations for quality and safety.

Massengill’s owner eventually made a public statement that now embodies responsibility avoidance rarely seen even today.  “We… not once could have foreseen the unlooked-for results.”2 Massengill was eventually purchased, merged, and merged again, and is now a footnote in pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline.

To this day, DEG is still a problem substance.  Many regulatory lapses out of China involve diethylene glycol.  China is where a lot of electronic cigarette operations originate.  So individuals should be aware of the products they’re purchasing–just like any other industry.

You can’t exactly avoid buying anything that might originate from China, but you can avoid operations without accountable US-based entities.




1.) Electronic Cigarettes. FDA, 22 July 2009. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. (link)

2.) Ballentine, Carol. “Taste of Raspberries, Taste of Death The 1937 Elixir Sulfanilamide Incident.” FDA Consumer Magazine June 1981: n. pag. Sulfanilamide Disaster. FDA, 07 Oct. 2010. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. (link)

3.) “The 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.” FDA History. FDA, 24 Sept. 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. (link)


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