Health Effects Of Ethylene Oxide Chemical

Health Effects Of Ethylene Oxide Chemical

Ethylene Oxide

Ethylene oxide (EtO) is used extensively by hospitals and other industries as a sterilizing agent.

EtO is a colorless, odorless gas that is both flammable and highly reactive. Most importantly, you cannot smell EtO until it reaches a temperature of 51.3 degrees Fahrenheit (10.7 degrees Celsius), the gas smells like ether.

It can be found in fumigants and sterilants and presents an opportunity for healthcare worker exposure during operations such as EtO sterilization of surgical equipment.

Human and animal studies consistently show that EtO can be hazardous to human health.

Short and long term exposure to ethylene oxide can cause several health issues.

Short-term (acute) exposures to EtO can cause the following health issues:

  • respiratory irritation and lung injury
  • shortness of breath
  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • cyanosis (bluish or grayish color of the skin, nails, lips, or around the eyes)

Long-term (chronic) exposure over many years may cause the following:

  • cancer
  • reproductive effects
  • genetic changes
  • damage to the nervous system
  • sensitization

The major use of ethylene oxide is as a chemical intermediate in the manufacture of ethylene glycol. Ethylene oxide is also used as a sterilizing agent for medical equipment and a fumigating agent for spices. The acute (short-term) effects of ethylene oxide in humans consist mainly of central nervous system depression and irritation of the eyes and mucous membranes. Chronic (long-term) exposure to ethylene oxide in humans can cause irritation of the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and lungs, and damage to the brain and nervous system.

There also is some evidence linking ethylene oxide exposure to reproductive effects. EPA has concluded that ethylene oxide is carcinogenic to humans by the inhalation route of exposure. Evidence in humans indicates that exposure to ethylene oxide increases the risk of lymphoid cancer and, for females, breast cancer.

Sources and Potential Exposure

  • Sources of ethylene oxide emissions to the air include uncontrolled emissions or venting with other gases in industrial settings.
  • Other sources of ethylene oxide air emissions include its use as a sterilizer of medical equipment and its release from commodity-fumigated materials.
  • The general population may be exposed to ethylene oxide through breathing contaminated air or from smoking tobacco or being near someone who is smoking. Certain occupational groups (e.g., workers in ethylene oxide manufacturing or processing plants, sterilization technicians, and workers involved in fumigation) may be exposed in the workplace.

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