Agency 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. EtO is a flammable, colorless gas used to make ethylene glycol, a component of antifreeze and polyester, and to sterilize medical and dental equipment and some other items. 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 dermal contact. Individuals who live near industrial facilities that release EtO may be exposed to higher-than-normal levels of the gas in the air.
According to ATSDR, acute exposure to high levels of EtO causes lung irritation, while short- and long-term exposure results in headaches, memory loss, numbness, nausea, and vomiting. OSHA backs up ATSDR’s conclusions, adding that acute exposure 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. EPA classifies the gas as a known human carcinogen, based on studies of workers showing that EtO exposures are associated with increased cancers of the white blood cells and breast cancer in women.
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 ATDSDR toxicological profiles, including a full list of substances with published profiles, is available on the agency's website.