Ethylene Oxide

What is ethylene oxide?

Ethylene oxide is a colorless gas with a sweet smell. At high concentrations it is flammable. It reacts with many other chemicals.

Where is ethylene oxide used?

Ethylene oxide is used in industrial settings. It can be used in the manufacture of polyester, plastics, and other chemicals. It can also be used as a disinfecting agent, so it is used in the disinfection of medical supplies that cannot be exposed to heat or alternative chemicals.

How does ethylene oxide enter the environment?

Ethylene oxide is not naturally occurring in the atmosphere, so it is only found in air at significant concentrations near businesses where it is produced or used. Ethylene oxide is a gas, so it can be released by leaks in equipment in factories or hospitals. Once in the air, it breaks down over several months. If it is released in water it breaks down in just a few days.

How could I be exposed to ethylene oxide?

Exposure at high levels is most likely in people who are working with ethylene oxide and inhale it when it escape into the air. It has also been found in low levels in outdoors air in many places near hospitals, sterilization facilities, and factories making ethylene oxide, and then people breathing the air can inhale small amounts.

How does ethylene oxide enter and leave the body?

Ethylene oxide can enter the body when it is inhaled in air. When ethylene oxide in air enters the lungs, it is absorbed into the bloodstream. Ethylene oxide can also be consumed at low levels in food, since it is used to disinfect spices and herbs. The Food and Drug Administration enforces regulations on the amount of residual ethylene oxide allowed in food. Small amounts of ethylene oxide are made in the body during normal metabolism. Some ethylene oxide can leave the blood to enter the air in the lungs, where it is breathed out of the body, but most is broken down and excreted in the urine.

What are the health risks of ethylene oxide exposure?

When people who work with ethylene oxide inhale it, it can cause lung damage leading to bronchitis, pulmonary edema, and emphysema. Breathing high concentrations can cause headache, nausea, and vomiting. At the low levels someone in the community might be exposed to in air near a factory, it does not cause symptoms, but breathing it over a lifetime could result in an increased risk of some types of cancer.

Is there a medical test to determine whether I have been exposed to ethylene oxide?

Ethylene oxide can react with hemoglobin in red blood cells, and a medical test can measure this. However, there is no standardized test for ethylene oxide exposure, and test results have not been correlated with health outcomes, so this test is used primarily in research on occupational exposure.

Where can I get more information about ethylene oxide?

If you need further information regarding the health effects of ethylene oxide, please contact the Virginia Department of Health, Office of Environmental Health Services, 109 Governor Street, 5th Floor, Richmond, VA 23219, or call (804) 864-8182.

You may also call your local health department if you have questions or concerns about ethylene oxide. A directory of local health departments is located at

Updated 2022