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Health and Environment

Hazards

Acute (Short-Term) Health Effects

  • Inhaling ethylene oxide can cause nausea, vomiting, and neurological disorders. At concentrations of 800 parts per million (ppm), ethylene oxide can be lethal.
  • Contact with ethylene oxide in solution can cause severe irritation and burns of the eyes, skin, and lungs.
  • Ethylene oxide is an extremely flammable and reactive gas or liquid. Even static can cause ethylene oxide to ignite.

Chronic (Long-Term) Health Effects

  • Ethylene oxide is a known or probable human carcinogen, depending on the classifying body. The National Toxicology Program recently upgraded it to a known human carcinogen. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies it as a Group B1 (probable) carcinogen and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies it as a Group 2A (probable) carcinogen.
  • Ethylene oxide is a potential reproductive hazard (teratogen). Both chronic and acute exposures may cause miscarriages. Animal studies indicate the potential for lower testicular weight and sperm concentration, and testicular degeneration.
  • Ethylene oxide may also damage the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys, or cause cataracts.

Hazards of Ethylene Oxide-based Chemical Products

  • The ethylene oxide-based glycol ethers are potential teratogens. Animal studies have documented increased rates of infertility, birth defects, and decreased fetal weight from glycol ether exposure.
  • The degradation products of ethylene oxide-based nonylphenol ethoxylates, nonylphenol and shortchained nonylphenol ethoxylates, are acutely toxic to marine organisms and have the potential to bioaccumulate.

Exposure Routes

Worker Health
Facilities using ethylene oxide (EtO) must minimize worker exposure.

  • Use ethylene oxide in closed systems. If a closed production system is infeasible, enclose operations and use local exhaust ventilation. If ethylene oxide exposure may exceed 0.1 ppm, use a Mine Safety and Health Administration/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-approved supplied-air respirator with a full facepiece.
  • Take precautions to avoid ethylene oxide contact with skin and eyes. If ethylene oxide contacts skin, wash immediately.
  • For an in-depth discussion of the hazards associated with ethylene oxide as well as lessons learned from previous industrial accidents involving EtO, refer to a publication by Shell Chemical Company, Dow Chemical Company, Sunoco, Celanese Ltd., and Equistar Chemicals, Ethylene Oxide User's Guide, second edition, August 1999.

Public Health
Air emissions are the principal source of public exposure to ethylene oxide.

  • Manufacturing facilities and hospitals are the primary sources of ethylene oxide emissions.
  • Other airborne sources include auto exhaust, releases from commodity-fumigated materials, and tobacco smoke.

Endnotes:
The data for this section were collected from the following sources: Environmental Defense Fund, 1999, "Chemical Profile for Ethylene Oxide" (New York: EDF; see webpage: http:/www.scorecard.org/chemicalprofiles/html/ethylene_oxide.html); Richard J. Lewis, Sr. (ed.), 1993, Hazardous Chemicals Desk Reference (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold); New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, 1994, Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet: Ethylene Oxide (Trenton, New Jersey; see webpage: http://www.state.nj.us/health/eoh/rtkweb/rtkhsfs.htm); Ted Schettler, Gina Solomon, Paul Burns, and Maria Valenti, 1996, Generations at Risk: How Environmental Toxins May Affect Reproductive Health in Massachusetts (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility and Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group); Swedish National Chemicals Inspectorate (KemI), 1991, Risk Reduction of Chemicals: A Government Commission Report, Report No. 1/91 (Solna, Sweden: KemI); and U.S. EPA, Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, 1998, Ethylene Oxide (Washington, D.C.: U.S. EPA; see webpage: http://www.epa.gov/ttn.uatw/hlthef/ethylene.html); Shell Chemical et al, Ethylene Oxide User's Guide, second edition, August 1999, (see webpage: http://www.ethyleneoxide.com/); U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Toxicology Program, 2000, 9th Report on Carcinogens.