Propionic Acid: Toxicity, Uses & Safety

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson goes over a tasty (in a way) compound called propionic acid. You'll learn about its uses, its potentially toxic effects and its various important safety issues.

What Is Propionic Acid?

I've never felt grater than when listening to some Gouda R'n'Brie music. All cheesy jokes aside, propionic acid actually is a compound with mildly cheese-like taste to it. There's another cheese connection to propionic acid, however. You'll learn about it as we go over the uses, toxicity, and safety of propionic acid.


So what is the other cheese connection? Propionic acid is used as a preservative and flavoring agent in various types of packaged foods. This includes cheese but also baked goods like tortillas and bread. It's also used a preservative in animal foods like hay, corn, oats, wheat, sorghum and barley. The reason it's used as preservative is because it has the ability to prevent the growth of various molds and it has antibacterial properties as well.

In agriculture and livestock operations, propionic acid can be used to sanitize the surface of places where silage and grain are stored for much the same reason. It can also be used as an antibacterial agent when placed into the water that poultry or livestock may drink. Speaking of poultry, it's sprayed onto poultry litter to kill fungi and bacteria.

Other than that, propionic acid can also be found in or help make:

  • Bleaching products
  • Cellulose acetate propionate, a powder that can be used in inks.
  • As a chemical intermediate in the manufacture of plastics, cosmetics, perfumes, textiles, dyes, rubber product, herbicides and pharmaceuticals.

On the note of pharmaceuticals, propionic acid has been used for all sorts of reasons. It, or its chemical variations called propionates, have been used as a topical antifungal agent, as a bee repellant, in anti skin-thinning medication and asthma medication.

Toxicity & Safety

While propionic acid has many important uses, it can also be toxic if used in an inappropriate manner. If it gets into a person's eyes, it can lead to severe irritation and possibly blindness. If it contacts the skin, then it may cause severe burns and pain. When inhaled, it can irritate a person's nose and throat. If it's accidentally swallowed in small amounts, it's unlikely to cause any harm.

If someone swallows a lot of this substance or a very concentrated form of it, however, then it can irritate and burn the digestive tract, including the mouth, throat and the stomach and intestines. If a person accidentally inhales propionic acid when ingesting it, then this can damage the lungs and, in severe cases, lead to a person's death.

There are no known birth defects associated with the use of propionic acid (in animals or humans). However, lab animal studies have shown that it may increase the risk of cancer in the stomach if swallowed in large amounts.

Since this substance can be potentially dangerous when not handled properly, safety precautions must be taken by people who manufacture it or use it often or in large amounts, such as in agricultural or livestock operations.

This means an organization should have a training program in place that teaches its employees on how to safely use the compound. For instance, if propionic acid is spilled a little bit, then it should be neutralized with alkaline soap and water. If there is a large spill, isolate the area of the spill and ensure the following:

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