What You Need to Know About Ethylene Oxide

What Is Ethylene Oxide?

Ethylene oxide is a flammable gas which has a somewhat sweet odor. It dissolves easily in alcohol, water and most organic solvents. It also goes by the name oxirane or ETO.

What Is Ethylene Oxide Used For?

Ethylene oxide is usually used in the production of: other chemicals such as ethylene glycol (antifreeze), detergents, solvents, textiles, polyurethane foam, polyester, and adhesives. A small amount of ethylene oxide is used to control insects in nuts and spices. It is also used to sterilize medical equipment and supplies, either in hospitals or other facilities.

How Might I Be Exposed to Ethylene Oxide?

People who work in factories that manufacture or process ethylene oxide; who work as sterilizing technicians; or who are fumigation workers may be exposed to ethylene oxide in the workplace by breathing the air.

People in the general population may be exposed to ethylene oxide by breathing contaminated air from uncontrolled emissions or venting from a facility that uses the chemical.

Individuals who smoke may also be exposed to ethylene oxide through tobacco smoke.

What Happens to Ethylene Oxide in the Environment?

When ethylene oxide is released into the air it is broken down by humidity and sunlight. The chemical is also broken down or destroyed by bacteria in a few days when it is in water. Once it enters the body, ethylene oxide is expelled rather quickly, perhaps in as little as 2-3 days.

How Can Ethylene Oxide Affect My Health?

Based on studies involving humans and on animal studies, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have determined that ethylene oxide is carcinogenic to humans.

Scientific studies have linked exposure to ethylene oxide to a variety of cancers, including:

  • Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Leukemia
  • Breast cancer
  • Lymphomas

Less conclusive evidence has shown a possible link to:

  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Stomach cancer
  • Kidney cancer

Furthermore, some animal studies have shown a link to:

  • Lung cancer
  • Brain tumors
  • Peritoneal mesothelioma
  • Uterine cancer

Other possible health effects include:

  • Miscarriages
  • Testicular degeneration
  • Kidney damage
  • Irritation of eyes, skin, and respiratory passages
  • Seizures
  • Cataracts
  • Headaches
  • Numbness
  • Memory loss
  • Nausea

Is There a Medical Test That Shows Whether I Have Been Exposed to Ethylene Oxide?

There are two tests-done in a specialty lab-that can determine if you have been exposed to ethylene oxide. One test measures ethylene oxide in the blood; the other measures it in your breath. However, if you were exposed more than 2 or 3 days ago, ethylene oxide may not show up in these tests. Similarly, if you were exposed to a very low level of ethylene oxide, it may not be detected in these tests. Furthermore, these tests will not predict future health effects resulting from exposure.

What Can I Do to Protect My Family?

  1. Join forces with your neighbors and start making noise. The media is your friend.
  2. Demand that the polluter cease emitting ethylene oxide into your community's air.
  3. Ask local government and state agencies to step in and help.
  4. See your physician if you think the health of anyone in your family may be affected.
  5. Talk with an experienced, environmental attorney to discover your legal options.

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