Ethylene Oxide Safety in the Workplace

What is Ethylene Oxide?

When used at low temperatures, Ethylene Oxide is an excellent sterilizer and kills harmful microorganisms, disease causing bacteria, and parasites. Hospitals and medical device manufacturers rely on Ethylene Oxide to sanitize instruments and equipment that can’t be sterilized using heat or steam.

Chemical Properties

In its raw form, Ethylene Oxide is the key ingredient used to make a variety of products, including antifreeze, detergent and plastic. It’s a colorless chemical that has a misleadingly pleasant aroma. Ethylene Oxide is also extremely flammable and highly reactive at room temperature. Spills and leaks vaporize rapidly so it should only be used in well-ventilated areas that are continuously monitored.

Ethlene Oxide Dangers

Despite its benefits, Ethylene Oxide poses serious health risks. It’s critical to follow recommended exposure limits, understand all safety regulations, and implement Ethylene Oxide detection measures in the workplace.


Health Risks

Exceeding exposure limits to Ethylene Oxide causes:

  • Cancer in humans

  • Nose and throat irritation that damages air passages and respiratory functions

  • Damage to the cardiovascular system

  • Chemical burns and frostbite to skin

  • Corneal burns and cataracts

Chemical burns and frostbite to skin

Ethylene Oxide exposure cause eye irritation

Nose and throat irritation that damages air passages and respiratory functions

Ethylene Oxide damages cardiovascular system

Reproductive System

Overexposure to Ethylene Oxide affects sexual function and fertility in both males and females. The sterilant chemical wreaks havoc on the reproductive system and increases risk of miscarriage. It’s also known to produce birth defects and interferes with growth, development and behavior.


Odor Threshold

Despite its aroma, your sense of smell is not reliable at detecting dangerous concentrations of Ethylene Oxide in the workplace. While the odor threshold is 500 parts per million (ppm), the permanent exposure limit (PEL) dictated by OSHA is only 1 ppm.

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Common Applications for Ethylene Oxide Monitoring in the Workplace

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Sterile Processing at Hospitals

Sterilization Technicians across the healthcare industry are exposed to high concentrations of Ethylene Oxide daily to ensure medical devices and instruments used on patients are sanitized and safe. Continuously monitoring work areas for gas leaks and overexposure is the most effective way to protect your front line workers. 

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Manufacturing Medical Devices

Medical device manufacturers and contract sterilization companies rely on large amounts of Ethylene Oxide to ensure infectious bacteria is not transmitted to patients via the equipment they produce. Since Ethylene Oxide is a highly combustible gas, preventing explosions caused by vapor leaks is vital for everyone’s safety. 

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Shipping and Supply Chain Logistics

Medical devices that are sterilized with Ethylene Oxide can continue to off-gas for days. During transport, Ethylene Oxide accumulates in trucks and exposes workers who receive and unload shipments. Once in storage, the accumulation of emissions can potentially cause concentration levels in the warehouse to exceed OSHA's permissible exposure limit (PEL).


Is your work environment safe? How do you know?

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