Antifreeze: Master of the Water Molecule … but comes with a nasty streak

Radiator Antifreeze

Antifreeze, also known as coolant, is the coloured fluid you find in your vehicle’s radiator.  The fluid itself can come in a variety of colours – green, yellow, red.  Coolant or antifreeze is pretty amazing science when it’s added to the water in a radiator.

The three functions of antifreeze

Antifreeze serves three main purposes in the engine.  The first two are to change the boiling and freezing points of the water in a radiator.  By raising the boiling point of the water, antifreeze works to keep the engine from overheating in summer.  By lowering the freezing point of the water, antifreeze works to prevent the engine freezing up in the winter.  Radiators are usually filled with a 50/50 mixture of antifreeze and water.

As we said, that’s pretty amazing science! To be able to keep the same water from either boiling or freezing through what is really quite an impressive temperature range.

The third main purpose of coolant or antifreeze is to lubricate any moving parts with which it comes into contact, like the water pump.

What’s in antifreeze?

The main ingredient of coolant or antifreeze is ethylene glycol, a substance also found in hydraulic brake fluid.  It’s a clear, colourless, odourless liquid with a sweet taste.

The fact it tastes good is the big problem because if swallowed, ethylene glycol will produce dramatic and lethal toxicity.

Antifreeze poisoning

There’s always the danger of spilling coolant or antifreeze on the ground when you top up your vehicle’s radiator.  Or there may be a leak in the radiator you’re not aware of.  Owing to its sweet smell dogs and other animals (and even small children!), are likely to be attracted to it.  They may ingest large amounts of it because it tastes good.

Ingesting coolant or radiator antifreeze will cause widespread tissue damage in the brain, heart, kidneys and blood vessels. The result can be fatal.  Even licking up a small spill of antifreeze can kill an animal.

Clean up any spilt antifreeze

If you see a bright green, yellow or red puddle on a driveway or street, or on the floor of a garage, keep your dog and any other pets away from it.

Either clean it up yourself or tell someone about it who will.

Wear gloves when you clean up radiator antifreeze because ethylene glycol can be absorbed through the skin and it will damage your internal organs.  Inhaling the fumes, even though you cannot smell them, can cause dizziness.

New, less toxic antifreeze

There’s a new type of antifreeze available on the market, although it’s not the most common type.  The new type contains propylene glycol, rather than ethylene glycol.

Propylene glycol is much less toxic than ethylene glycol.  To get sick or die, a dog or other animal would have to ingest much more of this type of antifreeze.  The quantity required to be fatal is unlikely to be available from a spill or slightly leaking radiator.

The label on the container should tell you what ingredient is in the antifreeze.  However, no matter what type of antifreeze you use, there are only 2 places it should be.  One is in its securely sealed container, and the other is in your vehicle’s radiator. (Which should, of course, not be leaking!)

Long on the shelf – not so long in the radiator

Antifreeze has an amazing shelf life.  Note we say ‘shelf life’, i.e. in the container on the shelf in your garage.  Even if the container has been opened, the unused fluid is still good for years.

However, once it goes into the radiator, then things start to happen and, over time, the antifreeze breaks down.  As this happens, the antifreeze causes rust and rust particles in the radiator to become electrically charged, which makes them highly corrosive.  This can cause major damage to the radiator cooling system and affect the entire engine.

This means there’s no good reason to postpone a seasonal radiator flush.  That way, your vehicle’s radiator will function correctly and last for years, just like a container of antifreeze.

For more information, or to have your radiator checked for leaks, contact your nearest 0800 Radiator specialist today.