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Use Nationally and in Massachusetts

Eleven corporations, all located in Louisiana and Texas, had the capacity to manufacture 8.8 billion pounds of ethylene oxide in 1996. U.S. manufacturers primarily use ethylene oxide as an intermediary to produce other chemicals. The major end-uses for ethylene oxide are ethylene glycol (58%), other glycols (10%), glycol ethers (6%), ethanolamines (10%), surface-active agents or surfactants (11%), and other uses (5%).

Common products made using ethylene glycol as an intermediary chemical include the following: polyethylene terephthalate (PET; a prominent example of PET is 2-liter soda bottles), antifreeze, lubricants, natural gas, polyurethane, polyvinyl chloride (glycols act as a plasticizer), brake fluids, printed circuit boards, and detergents.

Direct uses of EtO include its use as a fumigant and sterilant; it effectively kills microbial organisms. Approximately 8-9 million pounds were used to sterilize or fumigate disposable and reusable medical items, scientific equipment, clothing, furniture, spices, books, packaging materials, and museum artifacts.

Ethylene oxide consumption in Massachusetts is low because the state lacks manufacturers of ethylene glycols, glycol ethers, or ethylene oxide-based surfactants where EtO would be used as an intermediary. While only 3 firms have ever reported EtO use in Massachusetts, it is likely used widely as a sterilant in quantities below the 10,000 pound threshold for reporting under MA TURA (Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act) and U.S. TRI (Toxics Release Inventory).

  • In 1997, one Massachusetts facility, Isomedix, used 337,200 pounds of ethylene oxide in the "terminal sterilization" of disposable medical instruments and supplies (see Table 1).
  • CR Bard reported on its use of EtO for a few years beginning in 1990 and then either ceased using EtO or dropped below threshold.

Table 2 includes two sources of "output" data: MA TURA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data. The MA TURA database includes all non product material created by a process line prior to release, on-site treatment, or transfer ("byproduct") and the amount of toxic chemical incorporated into a product ("shipped in or as product"). The U.S. EPA, TRI database includes information on the waste materials generated by a facility after on-site treatment including: releases to air, land, and water ("environmental releases") and transfers off-site for treatment or disposal ("off-site transfers").

  • In its use as a sterilant, EtO ends up as a byproduct of production.
  • In 1990, Bard, Inc. reported 10,400 pounds of fugitive and point air emissions. In 1997, Isomedix reported only 709 pounds of fugitive and point air emissions.

Endnotes:
The national chemical use data are from Stanford Research Institute (SRI) International, 1997, Chemical Economics Handbook, Ethylene Oxide (Palo Alto, California: SRI). The Massachusetts chemical use data are from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MA DEP), 1998, Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act Chemical Reporting Data (Boston: MA DEP).