Ethylene Oxide - ChemicalSafetyFacts.org

Ethylene Oxide

A versatile chemical building block, ethylene oxide is primarily used in industrial applications to manufacture other chemicals. Ethylene oxide and its derivatives help make a wide variety of materials and products we use every day, such as sterile bandages, polyester fibers, fiberglass and plastic packaging film.

Uses & Benefits

Industrial Manufacturing

Virtually all ethylene oxide produced is used as an intermediate in the production of other chemicals, such as ethylene glycol which is used to manufacture polyester fiber for clothes, upholstery, carpet, and pillows; and also in automotive engine antifreeze. Ethylene glycol also is used to manufacture fiberglass used in products such as jet skis, bathtubs and bowling balls, as well as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic resin used to make beverage containers for soda, water, juice and beer, and also packaging film.

Other ethylene oxide derivatives are used as ingredients in household and industrial cleaners, personal care items such as cosmetics and shampoos, heat transfer liquids, polyurethanes, plasticizers, ointments and pharmaceutical preparations.

Medical Applications

Ethylene oxide sterilization is primarily used to sterilize medical and pharmaceutical products that cannot support conventional, high-steam sterilization procedures. Delicate, heat-sensitive medical devices that incorporate plastics and electronics could be warped or otherwise damaged by steam sterilization. As a low-temperature sterilizer, ethylene oxide gas won’t damage these types of medical devices. Ethylene oxide also is used to sterilize other healthcare products, such as bandages and ointments, reducing potential damage to the product that may occur from other means of sterilization.

Safety Information

As ethylene oxide is primarily used in industrial manufacturing operations, the general public is not likely to be exposed to ethylene oxide, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR).

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) ethylene oxide standard requires employers who have ethylene oxide present in their workplace to monitor employees for exposure unless they are specifically exempt from this requirement.

In manufacturing settings, inhaling low levels of ethylene oxide long term can cause irritation of the eyes, skin, and respiratory passages and affect the nervous system, causing headaches, nausea and other symptoms. At higher levels of exposure for shorter periods, effects are similar, although they may be more severe. Ethylene oxide should never come into direct contact with skin. Under OSHA’s ethylene oxide standard, employers must provide appropriate protective clothing and equipment to employees who may be exposed to ethylene oxide.

Answering Questions

How is ethylene oxide regulated for worker safety?

For workers in or near facilities where ethylene oxide gas is present, OSHA has set exposure limits. In addition, employers must provide appropriate protective clothing and equipment to employees who may be exposed to ethylene oxide. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) also provide guidance for industrial exposure to ethylene oxide.

Is there likely exposure to ethylene oxide for the general population?

According to ATSDR, most people are not likely to be exposed to ethylene oxide in the general environment.

Can ethylene oxide cause cancer?

Any potential association between ethylene oxide and cancer is linked only to significant and prolonged exposures. There is minimal cancer risk for the general population because most people are not exposed to significant quantities of ethylene oxide through consumer products.