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Contents
Page last reviewed: 03/23/2012
Highlights
  • Maximize Your Spirometry Screening and Surveillance Resources. OSHA/NIOSH InfoSheet (OSHA Publication 3415), (2011).
  • Protect Yourself - Spirometry Breathing Test. OSHA/NIOSH Worker Info (OSHA Publication 3418), (2011).
  • OSHA's Small Business Guide for Ethylene Oxide. Also available as a 14 MB PDF, 87 pages. OSHA Publication 3359, (2009, April). Provides guidance to help employers understand the EtO standard, with particular emphasis on how to monitor the quality of the air in workplaces where EtO is processed, used, or handled. Air monitoring is an important activity that can help alert employers when unsafe levels of EtO are present in the air so they can take steps to reduce employee exposure.
  • Hospital. OSHA eTool. Focuses on some of the hazards and controls found in the hospital setting and describes standard requirements as well as recommended safe work practices for employee safety and health.
    • Central Supply. Provides information on hazards and methods of exposure prevention regarding ethylene oxide gas.
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Ethylene Oxide

Ethylene oxide (EtO) is produced in large volumes and is primarily used as an intermediate in the production of several industrial chemicals, the most notable of which is ethylene glycol. It is also used as a fumigant in certain agricultural products and as a sterilant for medical equipment and supplies. Unfortunately, EtO possesses several physical and health hazards that merit special attention. EtO is both flammable and highly reactive. Acute exposures to EtO gas may result in respiratory irritation and lung injury, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, and cyanosis. Chronic exposure has been associated with the occurrence of cancer, reproductive effects, mutagenic changes, neurotoxicity, and sensitization.

OSHA Standards

Exposures to ethylene oxide are addressed in specific standards for general industry, shipyard employment, and the construction industry. This section highlights OSHA standards and standard interpretations (official letters of interpretation of the standards) related to ethylene oxide. Twenty-five states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have OSHA-approved State Plans and have adopted their own standards and enforcement policies. For the most part, these States adopt standards that are identical to Federal OSHA. However, some States have adopted different standards applicable to this topic or may have different enforcement policies.

General Industry (29 CFR 1910)

Shipyard Employment (29 CFR 1915)

Construction Industry (29 CFR 1926)

  • 1926 Subpart D, Occupational health and environmental controls
    • 1926.64, Process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals.
      • Appendix A, List of highly hazardous chemicals, toxics and reactives (Mandatory). Lists the threshold quantity (TQ) of ethylene oxide for coverage by this standard at 5000 lbs.
  • 1926 Subpart Z, Toxic and hazardous substances

Standard Interpretations

Hazard Recognition

Many workers are unaware of the potential hazards in their work environment, which makes them more vulnerable to injury. The following references aid in recognizing and evaluating ethylene oxide hazards in the workplace.

  • Ethylene Oxide [47 KB PDF*, 2 pages]. OSHA Fact Sheet, (2002). Answers common questions regarding ethylene oxide.

  • Ethylene Oxide (EtO): Evidence of Carcinogenicity. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Current Intelligence Bulletin 35, (1981, May 22). Provides information on health effects at threshold exposure levels.

  • Special Occupational Hazard Review With Control Recommendations: Use of Ethylene Oxide as a Sterilant in Medical Facilities. US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Publication No. 77-200, (1977, August). Describes hazards and control measures for EtO.

  • Ethylene oxide. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), (1994, May). Provides an Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health document that includes acute toxicity data for ethylene oxide.

  • Anthrax spore decontamination using ethylene oxide. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Fact Sheet. Provides questions and answers pertaining to ethylene oxide.

  • TOXNET for Ethylene Oxide. The National Library of Medicine Hazardous Substance Database.

  • Report on Carcinogens (RoC). US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), National Toxicology Program (NTP). Identifies and discusses agents, substances, mixtures, or exposure circumstances that may pose a health hazard due to their carcinogenicity. The listing of substances in the RoC only indicates a potential hazard and does not establish the exposure conditions that would pose cancer risks to individuals.
    • Ethylene Oxide [194 KB PDF, 4 pages]. NTP classification: Known to be a human carcinogen
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks for Humans [88 KB PDF, 31 pages]. World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer, (1994). IARC Classification: Carcinogenic to humans (Group 1).

  • Toxicological Profile for Ethylene Oxide. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), (1990, December). Provides exposure risks, exposure limits, and health effects for ethylene oxide.

  • ToxFAQs for Ethylene Oxide. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), (1999, July). Answers the most frequently asked health questions about ethylene oxide.

  • Ethylene Oxide. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), (2000, January). Lists ethylene oxide as a Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) under the National Emissions Standard Hazardous Air Pollutants section of its Clean Air Act.

  • Ethylene Oxide [715 KB PDF, 6 pages]. New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet, (2001, May). Provides a summary source of information of all potential and most severe health hazards that may result from ethylene oxide exposure.

  • International Chemical Safety Cards: Ethylene Oxide. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), (2001, October 18). Summarizes essential health and safety information on ethylene oxide.

Exposure Evaluation

  • Chemical Sampling Information. OSHA, (1999, January 14). Presents, in concise form, data on a large number of chemical substances that may be encountered in industrial hygiene investigations. Basic reference for industrial hygienists engaged in OSHA field activity.
  • OSHA Occupational Chemical Database. OSHA maintains this chemical database as a convenient reference for the occupational safety and health community. It compiles information from several government agencies and organizations. This database originally was developed by OSHA in cooperation with EPA.
  • OSHA Technical Manual (OTM). OSHA Directive TED 01-00-015 [TED 1-0.15A], (1999, January 20).

Analytical Methods

OSHA

OSHA has developed and validated methods for use by the Salt Lake Technical Center (SLTC) laboratory. The following method has been adopted by many laboratories for the analysis of chemical compounds.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

  • Ethylene Oxide [35 KB PDF, 6 pages]. Method 1614, (1994, August 15). Provides sampling information for ethylene oxide.

Possible Solutions

Acute exposures to EtO gas may result in respiratory irritation and lung injury, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, and cyanosis. Chronic exposure has been associated with the occurrence of cancer, reproductive effects, mutagenic changes, neurotoxicity, and sensitization. The following references aid in preventing and controlling exposures to ethylene oxide.

Additional Information

Related Safety and Health Topics Pages

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