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Ethylene Oxide

General Description

  • Synonyms: Dimethylene oxide; 1,2-Epoxyethane; Oxirane; ETO
  • OSHA IMIS Code Number: 1190
  • Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) Registry Number: 75-21-8
  • NIOSH Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances (RTECS) Identification Number: KX2450000
  • Department of Transportation Regulation Number (49 CFR 172.101) and 2012 Emergency Response Guidebook (PDF): 1040 119P
  • NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards - Ethylene Oxide: Physical description, chemical properties, potentially hazardous incompatibilities, and more
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Hazard Summary - Ethylene Oxide: Uses, sources and potential exposure, acute and chronic health hazard information, and more

Exposure Limits and Health Effects

Exposure Limit Limit Values HE Codes Health Factors and Target Organs
  • 1 ppm TWA
  • 5 ppm Excursion Limit (15 minutes)
  • 0.5 ppm Action Level

HE1

Cancer (leukemia)

HE5

Reproductive effects, spontaneous abortion

HE7

Central nervous system depression, neurological effects

HE15

Sensitization and irritation of eyes and respiratory tract

  • 1 ppm TWA
  • 5 ppm Excursion Limit (15 minutes)
  • 0.5 ppm Action Level

HE1

Cancer (leukemia)

HE5

Reproductive effects, spontaneous abortion

HE7

Central nervous system depression, neurological effects

HE15

Sensitization and irritation of eyes and respiratory tract

  • 1 ppm TWA
  • 5 ppm Excursion Limit (15 minutes)
  • 0.5 ppm Action Level

HE1

Cancer (leukemia)

HE5

Reproductive effects, spontaneous abortion

HE7

Central nervous system depression, neurological effects

HE15

Sensitization and irritation of eyes and respiratory tract

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Recommended Exposure Limit (REL)

  • <0.1 ppm (<0.18 mg/m3) TWA
  • 5 ppm (9 mg/m3) Ceiling (10 minutes)
  • Ca

HE1

Cancer (leukemia, stomach) , chromosomal damage in lymphocytes

HE5

Miscarriage

HE7

Peripheral neuropathy

HE12

Anemia

HE15

Irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs; blisters, edema, burns, frostbite, and severe dermatitis; skin sensitization; numbing of the sense of smell; respiratory infection

American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) Threshold Limit Value (TLV) (2001)

  • 1 ppm (1.8 mg/m3) TWA
  • A2; Skin

HE1

Cancer (leukemia)

HE5

Spontaneous abortion

HE7

Central nervous system and cognitive impairment

HE15

Irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs; mild to severe dermatitis, blisters, edema, burns, and frostbite; skin sensitization

  • 1 ppm (2 mg/m3) TWA
  • 5 ppm STEL

HE1

Cancer (leukemia)

HE5

Spontaneous abortion

HE7

Central nervous system and cognitive impairment

HE15

Irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs; mild to severe dermatitis, blisters, edema, burns, and frostbite; skin sensitization

  • National Toxicology Program (NTP) carcinogenic classification: Known to be a human carcinogen (PDF)
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) carcinogenic classification: Group 1 (PDF) (carcinogenic to humans)
  • EPA carcinogenic classification: Not listed
  • EPA Inhalation Reference Concentration (RfC): Not established
  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) Inhalation Minimal Risk Level (MRL): 0.09 ppm (intermediate)
  • NIOSH Immediately Dangerous To Life or Health Concentration (IDLH): 800 ppm
  • Notes on Other Potential Health Effects and Hazards
    1. Ethylene oxide is extremely flammable (NIOSH/IPCS 2001).
    2. A cohort of over 2,000 workers employed in two plants producing medical equipment sterilized with ethylene oxide were investigated. The findings indicate limited or low risks for cancer due to low occupational exposure to ethylene oxide. However, a positive exposure-response relationship with breast cancer was observed (Mikoczy et al. 2011).
    3. Ethylene oxide forms adducts with hemoglobin and DNA, which researchers have used as biomarkers of exposure (Kolman et al. 2002).
    4. A 35-year-old man experienced occupational asthma after acute exposure to ethylene oxide (Deschamps et al. 1992).
    5. The NTP notes that an increased risk of cancer has been found in studies of workers using ethylene oxide as a sterilizing agent for medical devices and spices, and in chemical synthesis and production. The increased cancers were lymphomas and leukemias, with evidence for other sites. (NTP 2012a)
    6. IARC noted that ethylene oxide causes lymphatic and hematopoietic tumors and breast cancers in people. (IARC 2010)
    7. Inhalation studies in laboratory animals showed hematopoietic tumors, breast cancer and lung cancer. (IARC 2010)
    8. ACGIH notes that ethylene oxide causes chromosomal damage in exposed workers and may cause reproductive toxicity in exposed women. (ACGIH 2001)
  • Date Last Revised: 11/16/2012
  • Literature Basis:
    • ACGIH: Documentation of the Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) and Biological Exposure Indices (BEIs) - Ethylene Oxide. 2001.
    • Deschamps, D., Rosenberg, N., Soler, P., Maillard, G., Fournier, E., Salson, D. and Gervais, P.: Persistent asthma after accidental exposure to ethylene oxide. Br. J. Ind. Med. 49(7): 523-525, 1992.
    • Kolman, A., Chovanec, M. and Osterman-Golkar, S.: Genotoxic effects of ethylene oxide, propylene oxide and epichlorhydrin in humans: update review (1990-2001). Mutat. Res. 512(2-3): 173-194, 2002.
    • IARC Monographs, Volume 100F, Ethylene Oxide, 2010 (PDF)
    • Mikoczy, Z., Tinnerberg, H., Bjork, J., and Albin, M.: Cancer incidence and mortality in Swedish sterilant workers exposed to ethylene cxide: Updated cohort study findings 1972-2006. Int J Environ Res Public Health 8(6): 2009-2019, 2011.
    • National Toxicology Program Report on Carcinogens Ethylene Oxide, 2012 (PDF)
    • NIOSH: Occupational Safety and Health Guideline for Ethylene Oxide, Potential Human Carcinogen. 1988.
    • NIOSH/IPCS: International Chemical Safety Cards - Ethylene Oxide. October 18, 2001.

Monitoring Methods used by OSHA

Laboratory Sampling/Analytical Method:
  • coated carbon beads tube (100/50 mg sections, 20/40 mesh); coating is HBr.
  • analytical solvent: Acetonitrile/Toluene
  • maximum volume: 12 Liters
  • maximum flow rate: 0.05 L/min (TWA)
  • maximum volume: 0.75 Liter
  • maximum flow rate: 0.05 L/min (EL)
  • current analytical method: Gas Chromatography; GC/ECD
  • method reference: OSHA Analytical Method (OSHA 1010)
  • method classification: Fully Validated
On-Site Sampling Techniques/Methods:
  • detector tube
  • manufacturer: Dräger
  • model/type: Ethylene oxide 1/a, order no. 67 28961
  • sampling information: 20 strokes
  • upper measurement limit: 15 ppm
  • detection limit: 1 ppm
  • overall uncertainty: 32%
  • method reference: on-site air secondary (manufacturer)
  • detector tube
  • manufacturer: Dräger
  • model/type: Ethylene oxide 25/a, order no. 67 28241
  • sampling information: 30 strokes
  • upper measurement limit: 500 ppm
  • detection limit: approx. 10 ppm
  • overall uncertainty: 32%
  • method reference: on-site air secondary (manufacturer)
  • detector tube
  • manufacturer: Gastec
  • model/type: 163LL
  • sampling information: 2 to 4 strokes
  • upper measurement limit: 10 ppm
  • detection limit: 0.5 ppm
  • overall uncertainty: 25% for 0.1 to 0.5 ppm, 16% for 1 to 5 ppm
  • method reference: on-site air secondary (manufacturer)
  • detector tube
  • manufacturer: Gastec
  • model/type: 163L
  • sampling information: 1 to 4 strokes
  • upper measurement limit: 350 ppm
  • detection limit: 0.1 ppm
  • overall uncertainty: 25% for 1 to 20 ppm, 16% for 20 to 100 ppm
  • method reference: on-site air secondary (manufacturer)
  • detector tube
  • manufacturer: Gastec
  • model/type: 163
  • sampling information: 1 stroke
  • upper measurement limit: 3.0%
  • detection limit: 0.02%
  • overall uncertainty: 16% for 0.05 to 1.0%, 8% for 1.0 to 3%
  • method reference: on-site air secondary (manufacturer)
  • detector tube
  • manufacturer: Matheson-Kitagawa
  • model/type: 8014-122SC
  • sampling information: follow manufacturer’s instructions
  • upper measurement limit: 15 ppm
  • detection limit: approx. 1 ppm
  • overall uncertainty: unknown
  • method reference: on-site air secondary (manufacturer)
  • detector tube
  • manufacturer: Matheson-Kitagawa
  • model/type: 8014-122SB
  • sampling information: follow manufacturer’s instructions
  • upper measurement limit: 100 ppm
  • detection limit: approx. 5 ppm
  • overall uncertainty: unknown
  • method reference: on-site air secondary (manufacturer)
  • detector tube
  • manufacturer: Matheson-Kitagawa
  • model/type: 8014-122SA
  • sampling information: follow manufacturer’s instructions
  • upper measurement limit: 4%
  • detection limit: approx. 0.01%
  • overall uncertainty: unknown
  • method reference: on-site air secondary (manufacturer)

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