Party Poopers: Are Glow Sticks Party Killers?

I’m mad for a glow stick. And let’s face it festivals, concerts, parties and New Year’s Eve would all be a little bit sad without those little plastic tubes of rainbow light around our wrists, ankles, necks and being waved in the air.

Children, teenagers and the young at heart all love glow sticks. I’m sure in your time you have had a glow stick that leaked and the glowing liquid would have gotten all over your skin and clothes. I remember as a kid discovering if you snapped the glow stick open with your teeth you could paint on your skin with the fluorescent ink. Naturally my parents told me not to do this, I was making a mess. But that didn’t stop me. But was I doing more harm then making a mess? Could the brightly glowing chemicals put in the hands of children world wide actually be poisonous?

Source: Flickr (cc) - Anna Gonzalez
Source: Flickr (cc) – Anna Gonzalez

How Glow Sticks Work:

When you bend a glow stick  and hear that satisfying cracking sound you break a glass vial inside. This starts a chemiluminescent reaction by mixing the chemicals. A chemiluminescent reaction is a chemical reaction that results in the emission of light due to the decay of an excited state to a lower energy level.

In Glow sticks the active reagents are Anthracene, a chemical that fluoresces ultra violet light and oxalates synthesized with dibutyl phthalate. hydrogen peroxide oxidizes the oxalates to form an unstable peroxyacid ester. The Peroxyacid ester decomposed to carbon dioxide. Its this decomposition that releases energy in the form of light which is transmitted through a fluorescent dye. The dye is what gives glow sticks the variation of vibrant colors.

 But Could Glow Sticks be Toxic?

Anthracene and dibutyl phenthalate are both chemicals that could poison you. Dibutyl phthalate has been reported to cause anaphylaxis and even death when ingested in large quantities, but the quantities in glow sticks are pretty minimal.

There is no problem if the glow stick is swallowed whole, which seems like quite a feat. The problem is when the liquid from inside the glow stick gets into a kid’s mouth, eye or on their skin.

In an american study, a poison control call centre received 118 calls in a year about kids who had swallowed, or had contract with the chemicals from glow sticks to eyes or skin.22% of kids who ingested glow stick liquid had reactions such as irritation of the mouth or eyes and nausea and vomiting due to irritation of the intestinal tract.

The effect of people swallowing larger amounts of glow stick fluid at parties and festivals is hard to see. In these cases the people who have eaten glow sticks have probably also had alcohol or may have taken recreational drugs. People who have taken ecstasy (MDMA) and are experiencing bruxism, the excessive grinding of teeth or clenching the jaw, may chew on glow sticks for relief.

Here’s The Good News
Overall it is felt by experts that unless you drink an awful lot of the liquid in glow sticks, you will be fine!  The symptoms after exposure were infrequent. If irritation does occur is tends to happen at the site of contact soon after exposure occurred. The irritation is best treated by washing/rinsing the site or drinking water as decontamination. Glow sticks are a pleasant change of something that looks like it would be dangerous (glowing chemicals) that actually won’t cause you anything more then some passing irritation if the chemicals touch the skin.

2 Responses to “Party Poopers: Are Glow Sticks Party Killers?”

  1. jcoletto says:

    I don’t like these glow sticks since the day I’ve got a stain on my brand new shirt from a leakage from this sticks haha. I’ve always thought they were very toxic, as that liquid smells really bad, but I got more relaxed now that I know there are people actually studying this.

  2. alexc says:

    Good to know they pass the test! In truth though, a lot of things that are ‘toxic’ have to be ingested in impressive quantities to cause any real harm. And let’s also not forget that there are many irritants, for example chili, that can cause some quite uncomfortable side effects in even relatively small doses, yet many of us still willingly eat it regularly.