August 25, 2022

New Toxicological Profile Published for Ethylene Oxide

A new final toxicological profile for ethylene oxide (EtO) is available from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. According to ATSDR, EtO is a flammable gas used to make the chemical ethylene glycol, which in turn is used to make antifreeze and polyester. EtO is also used to sterilize food products as well as medical equipment and supplies in hospitals or sterilization facilities. 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 those who live elsewhere.

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.

“Chronic exposure [to EtO] has been associated with the occurrence of cancer, reproductive effects, mutagenic changes, neurotoxicity, and sensitization,” OSHA’s website explains.

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 also considers EtO to be a human carcinogen based on “scientific evidence in humans [that] indicates that exposure to EtO for many years increases the risk of cancers of the white blood cells” as well as increased risk of breast cancer in women.

ATSDR toxicological profiles characterize the toxicology and adverse health effects information for hazardous substances. The new toxicological profile for EtO can be found on the agency’s website along with the published profiles of other toxic substances.

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.