Clinical, laboratory, diagnostic, and histopathologic features of diethylene glycol poisoning--Panama, 2006

Ann Emerg Med. 2014 Jul;64(1):38-47. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2013.12.011. Epub 2014 Jan 15.


Study objective: Diethylene glycol is a toxic industrial solvent responsible for more than 13 mass poisonings since 1937. Little is known about the clinical spectrum, progression, and neurotoxic potential of diethylene glycol-associated disease because of its high mortality and the absence of detailed information in published mass poisoning reports. This incident includes the largest proportion of cases with neurotoxic signs and symptoms. We characterize the features of a diethylene glycol mass poisoning resulting from a contaminated cough syrup distributed in Panama during 2006.

Methods: This was a retrospective chart review and descriptive analysis in a tertiary level, urban health care facility. A case was a person admitted to the Social Security Metropolitan Hospital in Panama City between June 1 and October 22, 2006, with unexplained acute kidney injury and a serum creatinine level of greater than or equal to 2 mg/dL, or unexplained chronic renal failure exacerbation (>2-fold increase in baseline serum creatinine level) and history of implicated cough syrup exposure. Main outcomes and measures were demographic, clinical, laboratory, diagnostic, histopathologic, and mortality data with descriptive statistics.

Results: Forty-six patients met inclusion criteria. Twenty-four (52%) were female patients; median age was 67 years (range 25 to 91 years). Patients were admitted with acute kidney injury or a chronic renal failure exacerbation (median serum creatinine level 10.0 mg/dL) a median of 5 days after symptom onset. Forty patients (87%; 95% confidence interval [CI] 74% to 95%) had neurologic signs, including limb (n=31; 77%; 95% CI 62% to 89%) or facial motor weakness (n=27; 68%; 95% CI 51% to 81%). Electrodiagnostics in 21 patients with objective weakness demonstrated a severe sensorimotor peripheral neuropathy (n=19; 90%; 95% CI 70% to 99%). In 14 patients without initial neurologic findings, elevated cerebrospinal fluid protein concentrations without pleocytosis were observed: almost all developed overt neurologic illness (n=13; 93%; 95% CI 66% to 100%). Despite use of intensive care and hemodialysis therapies, 27 (59%) died a median of 19 days (range 2 to 50 days) after presentation.

Conclusion: A high proportion of patients with diethylene glycol poisoning developed progressive neurologic signs and symptoms in addition to acute kidney injury. Facial or limb weakness with unexplained acute kidney injury should prompt clinicians to consider diethylene glycol poisoning. Elevated cerebrospinal fluid protein concentrations without pleocytosis among diethylene glycol-exposed persons with acute kidney injury may be a predictor for progressive neurologic illness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acute Kidney Injury / chemically induced*
  • Acute Kidney Injury / epidemiology
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Disease Outbreaks*
  • Ethylene Glycols / poisoning*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neurotoxicity Syndromes / epidemiology
  • Neurotoxicity Syndromes / etiology*
  • Panama / epidemiology
  • Retrospective Studies


  • Ethylene Glycols
  • diethylene glycol