The Dangers of Ethylene Oxide

594px-Ethylene-oxide-from-xtal-3D-ballsEthylene oxide is a flammable gas also known as epoxyethane oxirane. It is a colourless gas with a slightly sweet odour.

An organic compound that consists of 3 atoms, 1 oxygen and 2 carbon.

Ethylene oxide should be treated as carcinogenic to humans and should be used and handled with great caution.


Chemical formula: C₂H₄O

Density: 0.88 g/cm³

Boiling point: 10.70°C

Average Molar mass: 44.05 g/mol


Ethylene oxide is quite commonly used in manufacturing of materials such as fabrics, agriculture as fumigants, sterilization of medical instruments in hospitals and an accelerant in plant growth of tobacco leaves.

How are people exposed?

The two most commons ways of exposure to ethylene oxide is exposure inhalation of vapors and direct skin contact.

Despite precaution that companies take, workers and people who live close by to facilities may be exposed to ethylene oxide through uncontrolled emissions.

Cigarette smoke and secondhand smoke all contain ethylene oxide.

Australian health authorities have set a maximum air concentration of ethylene oxide (averaged over a 40-hour week) for a workplace of 1800 micrograms per cubic metre of air (1 gram = 1,000,000 micrograms) or 1ppm ETO over an 8 hour work day.


TWA: <0.1 ppm (0.18 mg/m3)

CEILING;:5 ppm (9 mg/m3) [10-min/day

OSHA PEL;  TWA 1 ppm 5 ppm [15-minute Excursion]


Overexposure to the gas can cause the following effects on humans.

Short term exposure risks:

  • Skin irritations
  • Blistering
  • Weakness
  • Drowsiness

Long term exposure risks:

  • Headache & memory loss
  • Damage to skin, eye and nose
  • Frostbite
  • Degenerate brain function
  • Cancer and loss of life

See Ethylene Oxide Safety Data Sheet

The way to prevent these dangers from occurring is through the correct use of gas detection and appropriate respiratory equipment.

Exposure controls:

An appropriate ethylene oxide detection system should be installed and portable analysers worn for maximum worker protection. Badges can also be worn which can determine the short and long term exposure limits of individuals.

Storage of Cylinders:

Ethylene oxide cylinders should be kept in minimal quantities isolated and locked in a separate secure, well-ventilated room or storage area outside the workspace, out of direct sunlight and away from excessive heat. Cylinders should be stored away from combustibles or possible ignition sources.  Under no circumstances should full or spent canisters be disposed of by incineration.

Safety wear:

Appropriate safety respirators, eyewear, chemical resistant gloves, shoes and protective clothing with an approved standard should always be worn to avoid exposure to liquid splashes, gases or dusts.


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