Back in the 1950s, Dow Chemical promoted its glycols by highlighting the humectant and softening effect in cigarettes. Although cigarette advertising is anathema in society today, glycols and the role they play in smoking may be regaining respect. Propylene glycol is a major component of the fluid used in e-cigarettes, which are helping people kick their tobacco habit. The propylene glycol produces the smoke-like vapor when an e-cigarette is exhaled.

A petroleum-based compound that is odourless and tasteless, propylene glycol is approved by Health Canada for numerous manufacturing uses, including oral, injectable and topical pharmaceuticals, beauty products like makeup and shampoo, baby wipes, pet food and asthma inhalers. Little wonder Dow Chemical promoted its glycols for general manufacturing, offering to send free samples to anyone who filled out the advertisement coupon. (The glycol for antifreeze referred to in the ad is ethylene glycol that, unlike propylene glycol, is not designated as Generally Recognized As Safe by the United States Food and Drug Administration.)

Ironically, e-cigarettes’ newfound status may be short-lived due to propylene glycol. According to the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) in Switzerland, propylene glycol levels are high enough to irritate the eyes and airways and, similar to its tobaccobased doppelgänger, also expose non-smokers to these fumes.

The manufacturer of glycols, Dow Chemical Canada, is one of our nation’s older companies, being founded in 1942 as a subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company Midland, Mich., created 45 years earlier. Most notably, Dow developed a process for making styrene, needed to manufacture synthetic rubber. At the time, Second World War hostilities saw a takeover by the Japanese of East Asian rubber plantations. A replacement for natural rubber was desperately needed. This provided the opportunity for Dow to move north to provide styrene to Polymer Corporation, a newly created Crown corporation.

Today, Dow Canada is headquartered in Calgary and has manufacturing centres in Ontario, Alberta and Quebec. The Alberta facilities in Fort Saskatchewan and Prentiss produce hydrocarbons, ethylene, polyethylene and electricity. Dow also co-owns with the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation an ethylene glycol/ethylene oxide plant operated by MEGlobal. Dow’s West Hill plant near Toronto manufactures water-based emulsions while the Quebec plant in Varennes outside Montreal produces Styrofoam insulation.

Dow operates out of 36 countries. In 2013, it reported global sales of $57 billion and a sales force worldwide of 53,000.