Most ethylene oxide is used to make other chemicals.
What is ethylene oxide?
Ethylene oxide is a manufactured colorless, flammable gas with a sweet odor. The chemical formula for ethylene oxide is C2H4O.
Ethylene oxide is primarily used to make ethylene glycol, which is used to make antifreeze and polyester. Small amounts of ethylene oxide are used in pesticides, insecticides, and fumigants for spices, books, leather, paper, furniture, beekeeping equipment, and transportation vehicles. It is used to sterilize medical equipment and supplies and to purify cocoa, flour, coconut, fruits, dehydrated vegetables, and cosmetics. Ethylene oxide is also an ingredient in textiles, detergents, polyurethane foam, solvents, and adhesives. Ethylene oxide was one of the pesticides used to decontaminate anthrax spores in the bioterrorism attacks of October 2001.
Burning fuels such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal may release ethylene oxide. Because ethylene oxide has been used in growing tobacco leaves, tobacco smoke is another source of ethylene oxide emissions.How might I be exposed to ethylene oxide?
Exposure to ethylene oxide occurs primarily in the workplace. You can be exposed to ethylene oxide by inhaling, swallowing, or touching it.
At home, you can be exposed to low levels of ethylene oxide if you use products that have been sterilized or fumigated with it, including medical products; articles from libraries, museums, and research laboratories; beekeeping equipment; some foods and dairy products; cosmetics; and transportation vehicles.
You can be exposed to ethylene oxide at work if you work in a hospital, medical lab, farm, fumigation facility, or chemical plant that manufactures ethylene oxide or ethylene glycol. If you are a health care worker or technician, you may be exposed through equipment that has been sterilized with ethylene oxide or through a sterilizing machine.
You can be exposed if you smoke tobacco products or are near someone who is smoking and if you breathe automobile exhaust.How can ethylene oxide affect my health?
Ethylene oxide is listed as a human carcinogen in the Twelfth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program because it causes cancer, particularly leukemia, cancer of the pancreas, Hodgkin’s disease, and stomach cancer.
The effects of exposure to ethylene oxide become more severe as the exposure level increases. Exposure to ethylene oxide can cause a pregnant woman to have a miscarriage and may damage the male reproductive glands.
Exposure to high levels of ethylene oxide can cause seizures, paralysis, and coma, and damage the liver and kidneys. It can cause harmful lung injury, emphysema, pneumonia, pulmonary edema, headache, nausea, vomiting, weakness, lack of coordination, memory loss, diarrhea, and numbness. It can severely irritate the eyes, skin, throat, lungs, and respiratory passage. Long-term exposure can cause brain and nervous system problems and cataracts.
Breathing low levels of ethylene oxide can cause the same health problems but to a lesser degree. Skin contact with ethylene oxide can cause dermatitis, blisters, and burns. Skin contact with large amounts can cause frostbite.
If you think your health has been affected by exposure to ethylene oxide, contact your health care professional.
For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
This description is based on the information found in the Web links listed with this topic.
Ethylene Oxide (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) (PDF — 47 KB)
Ethylene Oxide (Environmental Protection Agency)
Ethylene Oxide. Haz-Map (National Library of Medicine)
Ethylene Oxide. Hazardous Substances Data Bank (National Library of Medicine)
Ethylene Oxide. Safety and Health Topics (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)
Ethylene Oxide. ToxFAQs. (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Map of Releases of Ethylene Oxide in the United States. TOXMAP (National Library of Medicine)
Last Updated: August 7, 2013