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What Is Propionic Acid? Discuss Its Uses Potentially Toxic Effects And Important Safety Issues

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Propionic Acid

An acid is a chemical substance that tastes sour in water. This is because they release hydrogen ions when added to water. The main indicator of the strength of an acid is a concept called pH (Potential Hydrogen). This measures the amount of acidity or alkalinity that is present in a solution. The higher value of pH indicates that the acidic content in a solution is very high and vice-versa. Acids are present in a wide range of solutions. They are contained in blood, aerated drinks, pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Propionic acid is a naturally occurring acid that appears on the skin and gastrointestinal tract. This happens due to the result of a bacterial action happening in the above mentioned body parts. This acid is responsible for both the smell of cheese and the smell of human sweat. It is also known as propanoic acid and its chemical formula is C3H6O2. Apart from the natural manner through which it occurs, this acid is also produced by chemical reactions in industries. The most common technique of commercial production of propionic acid is through the chemical synthesis from petroleum feedstocks. When present in its natural state, it is a liquid containing a pungent or unpleasant smell. Its properties lie somewhat intermediate to those of carboxylic and acidic acids and those of much larger fatty acids. At one point, propionic acid was used in large quantities in the production of acetic acid. At present, BASF is the largest producer of propionic acid in the world, producing approximately 150 kt on an annual basis. Although this acid has been in production for a long time, the techniques used to produce it have undergone a change in recent times. From 2018, 3D printing has become the latest method used to produce the acid.

The main uses of propionic acid are in the form of a preservative and a flavouring agent to a wide variety of packaged foods. Some of them include cheese, bread, oats, tortillas, hay and barley. With respect to hay, treating it with propionic acid reduces the time required for it to dry significantly. It also reduces the chances of heating and also prevents the loss of nutrients from the hay. The reason for using it as a preservative is its nature of preventing the growth of molds and its natural antibacterial properties. This helps in the prevention of infection in the food and makes it useful for consumption for a long period of time. It is also very popular in the making of the baked products in the form of calcium and sodium salts. In terms of agriculture, this acid is used to sanitize the surface of the places where grain and silage are stored by the farmers. Apart from grains, the acid is also helpful in the aspects of poultry, water purification and killing of bacteria and fungi from the litter of the birds and livestock. When used in the animal feed, it is used either directly or in the form of its ammonium salt. The main advantage of using it is that it produces lesser carbon dioxide and its feed conversion rate is much better. Its usage also extends to the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. In terms of pharmaceuticals, its chemical variants called propionates are used as a antifungal agent in insect repellent creams, asthma related medicines and skin protecting medicines. It is widely used as a food additive in US, Europe, Australia and various other parts of the world. This is because the governments there consider it to be a safe product and deem it fit for usage. However, it is not allowed to be used in Europe as a feed additive.  

Although propionic acid is widely used in many industries, there are a few potential downsides to the over usage of the product. Medical reports of people with a severe exposure to the acid for long periods of time suggested minute skin burns, damage of vision and a potential case of asthma. Direct contact with the acid to the human eye can lead to minute to severe irritation in the eyes and can lead to a potential loss of vision. Inhaling this acid can cause irritation in the respiratory system and lead to shortness of breath. Apart from these short term effects, the acid also causes a variety of long term or chronic health effects. Some of the notable effects of using this acid for prolonged periods are cancer, failure of the reproductive system and mild to severe irritation in the lungs. Apart from infecting the human body, propionic acid also adversely impacts the environment. Spillage of the acid in the soil leads to the contamination of the soil and loss of its nutrients. Adding it to water sources like ponds, lakes and underground waterways contaminates the quality of the water and makes it unfit for consumption. In their liquid and vapour forms, propionic acids are known to be combustible. Hence, it is advised that they are stored under appropriate conditions. Due to the negative effects caused by the product, it is important to use the product in a safe manner. Excessive usage of the product for extended periods of time should be avoided. In case of direct contact of the product with the eyes, one should take care that it does not impact the vision and should immediately fill them with excess water for a time not more than 15 minutes. Other safety measures should be followed in accordance with the advice of the sellers of the product or people who are experts in the sale of the product. In recent times, there has been an increasing speculation about the impact of propionic acid and its role in causing autism in people. Propionic academia is an uncommon inborn metabolism error that causes digestion related problems in patients. This disorder results in the formation of a toxic by product, known as the propionic acid. Doctors prescribe special diets for patients to overcome the problem caused due to the disorder. However, when it fails work on the patient, the propionic acid begins to show its effects and ends up causing extensive liver damage or autism in the people suffering from them. An examination of the patients suffering from both the diseases by the doctors has resulted in a link between the disorder and autism in patients. Although the extent to which both are connected is not clear, it has been suggested by doctors that the links should not be surprising. They are clearly convinced that propionic acid has the potential to cause significant, long-lasting damage in patients. The extent of this damage and its reasons are yet to be fully discovered in human beings. The research is in much advanced stages in terms of animals where there are proofs that the acid has a significant negative impact on the health of the animals. Hence, in order to conclude, it can be said that while propionic acid has not been completely proven to be unsafe for humans, it has its significant downsides. Therefore, there should be sufficient safety measures that should be taken before proceeding with its usage. People who work for prolonged periods in its production should take care of their health and the potential negative impacts caused by it.   


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