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Ethylene Oxide

What is Ethylene Oxide?

Ethylene oxide is a flammable gas that is primarily used to make other chemicals such as ethylene glycol. It is emitted from fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal, and from tobacco products.

Ethylene oxide is used to make antifreeze, adhesives, detergents, polyester, fumigants and pesticides, and sterilization agents for medical equipment.

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Where is Ethylene Oxide found?

  • Consumer products - adhesives, polyester, medical equipment, and tobacco products
  • Air – disinfection of medical equipment, cigarette smoke, secondhand smoke, and vehicle exhaust

How can I be exposed to Ethylene Oxide?

Ethylene Oxide commonly enter(s) the body through:


Inhalation (breathing)

  • Smoking tobacco products, breathing cigarette smoke or secondhand smoke, and disinfecting and sterilizing medical equipment

Skin contact

  • Touching products made with ethylene oxide

What happens when I am exposed to Ethylene Oxide?

Skin contact with ethylene oxide can cause:

  • Blisters
  • Burns similar to frostbite

Long-term exposure to ethylene oxide can cause:

  • Cancer
  • Cataracts and eye damage
  • Miscarriage
  • Headache and memory loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irritation of the eyes, skin, and nose
  • Problems in functioning of brain and nerves

Most people are not likely to be exposed to ethylene oxide in the general environment.

Who is at risk for exposure to Ethylene Oxide?

  • Consumers
    • Some consumer products contain ethylene oxide.
  • Cigarette smokers
    • Cigarette smoke and secondhand smoke contain ethylene oxide.
  • Farmers
    • Some fumigants and pesticides are made with ethylene oxide.

Reduce your risk

If you think your health has been affected by exposure to ethylene oxide, contact your health care professional.

Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling chemicals. For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

  • Do you, or does anyone in your household, smoke tobacco products?
  • How frequently are you exposed to vehicle exhaust or gas stations?
  • Do you live near a busy highway?
  • Avoid inhalation of and skin contact with ethylene oxide.
  • Use proper ventilation when you use ethylene oxide products.
  • Limit your time near idling cars, trucks, or buses.
  • Pump gas carefully to avoid breathing the fumes.
  • If you smoke, quit. Avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Don’t let children play near gas stations, idling cars, or busy highways.
  • Keep children away from ethylene oxide products.

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases

Additional Resources

  • Ethylene Oxide
    Environmental Protection Agency
    2017 hazard summary on ethylene oxide that addresses its uses, sources, and methods for assessing personal exposure, as well as information on its hazardous health effects, physical properties, and data on inhalation exposure.
  • Ethylene Oxide. ToxFAQs.
    Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
    Factsheet with answers to most frequently asked questions about ethylene glycol exposure and its effect on human health, developed by a federal public health agency that protects communities from harmful health effects related to exposure to natural and man-made hazardous substances.
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