October 1, 2020

Draft Document Describes Adverse Health Effects of Ethylene Oxide Exposure

A new draft toxicological profile for ethylene oxide (EtO) published by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry describes the chemical’s toxicology and adverse health effects. According to ATSDR, EtO is a flammable, colorless gas used to make the chemical ethylene glycol, which in turn is used to make antifreeze and polyester. EtO is also used to sterilize some medical and dental equipment and other items that cannot be sterilized using steam. Workers who perform routine sterilization of equipment in hospitals or other workplaces may be exposed to relatively high levels of EtO, and those who work where EtO is made or used are also at risk of exposure via inhalation or contact with the skin. Individuals who live near industrial facilities that release EtO may be exposed to higher levels of the gas than are normally found in air. The gas has typically been measured at low levels in many areas of the United States.

ATSDR warns that workers exposed to high levels of EtO in air for short time periods reported lung irritation. Those exposed to high concentrations for both short and long periods reported effects including headaches, memory loss, numbness, nausea, and vomiting. OSHA’s safety and health topic page on EtO echoes ATSDR’s conclusions. According to OSHA, acute exposures to EtO gas may also result in lung injury, diarrhea, shortness of breath, and cyanosis, a condition characterized by bluish discoloration of the skin, usually due to deficient oxygenation of the blood.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program, which prepares the Report on Carcinogens, has determined that EtO is known to be a human carcinogen (PDF). EPA classified EtO as a human carcinogen in December 2016. The agency’s classification is based on studies of workers showing that exposures to EtO are associated with increased cancers of the white blood cells and an increased risk of breast cancer in females.

The deadline to submit comments on ATSDR’s draft toxicological profile for EtO is Dec. 29, 2020. Instructions for submitting comments are available in the Federal Register. More information on the agency’s toxicological profiles, including a full list of substances with published profiles, is available on ATSDR’s website.

Related: An industrial hygienist from a consulting firm that participated in the sampling of EtO in the Willowbrook, Illinois, community discussed his experiences as part of a prerecorded virtual session at AIHce EXP 2020. The case drew national attention and resulted in the shuttering of a Willowbrook facility.