Ethylene oxide is the most commonly used agent in chemical sterilization. Today it’s used to treat roughly fifty percent of all sterile medical devices in the United States. It is also used as a building block to manufacture other products, such as antifreeze, textiles, plastics, detergents, and adhesives.

In recent years, strict regulations concerning ethylene oxide exposure have been imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the use of ethylene oxide is also being monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act. Concerns about ethylene oxide emissions have also recently led to the shutdown of facilities that produce the chemical.

We sat down with CTEH Industrial Hygienist Adrianne Watkins to discuss ethylene oxide and the importance of monitoring for it.

CTEH: What is ethylene oxide used for, and where is it usually found?

Adrianne Watkins: The chemical is primarily used in the healthcare and chemical industries. It’s a very commonly used sterilizer since it’s compatible with a wide range of materials and usually doesn’t damage delicate instruments. It can sterilize items like medical supplies, electronics, optical equipment, paper, rubber, and plastics, and other things that can’t tolerate high heat or moisture. And in the chemical industry, it’s used in the production of detergents, thickeners, solvents, plastics, and other organic chemicals. Ethylene oxide is also produced naturally by the human body and is found in cigarette smoke.

CTEH: How is it emitted, and who may be occupationally exposed?

AW: In industrial settings, sometimes it’s emitted along with other gases during controlled venting, as well as during fumigation of things like foods, clothing, medical supplies, and cosmetics. Occupational exposures to ethylene oxide may occur to those working in manufacturing or processing plants, in addition to sterilization technicians or fumigation workers.

CTEH: How does OSHA regulate worker exposure to ethylene oxide?

AW: Workers shouldn’t be exposed to airborne concentrations of ethylene oxide in excess of 1 ppm (part per million) as an eight-hour time-weighted average, or in excess of 5 ppm as averaged over a 15-minute sampling period.

CTEH: How can CTEH help?

AW: We have a team of industrial hygiene and safety professionals who can help monitor for ethylene oxide and evaluate potential worker exposure. We can identify hazards, review historical or representative industry data, perform worker exposure monitoring, visualize and manage existing data, and more. We can also set up a full exposure control program or review one that’s already in place.

Does your facility produce ethylene oxide? CTEH can provide worker exposure assistance and related industrial hygiene services. Visit our website for more information.