Side Effects of Ethylene Oxide Exposure
Side effects of ethylene oxide exposure include acute side effects, such as respiratory problems and headaches, as well as chronic exposure side effects including cancer and reproductive problems.
Ethylene oxide is a mutagen, teratogen and carcinogen. This means the chemical can cause cellular damage, birth defects, miscarriages and reproductive organ damage. Ethylene oxide side effects vary depending on whether a person inhales or touches the chemical.
Acute Exposure Side Effects
Acute exposure side effects are symptoms a person develops from sudden or short-term exposure to ethylene oxide. This may include direct skin contact, for example if you spill it on yourself, or inhalation over a short period of time.
- Coughing or shortness of breath
- Fluid build up in the lungs at higher exposures
- Irritated, burning or damaged eyes
- Irritated nose and throat
Acute side effects may subside after a person is no longer exposed to ethylene oxide. For example, leaving the exposure area may help clear up coughing or vomiting. Washing the skin may relieve itching.
Chronic Exposure Side Effects
Chronic exposure side effects develop after being exposed to ethylene oxide over a long period of time. These side effects typically occur after several months or years of exposure.
Health problems from chronic exposure may go away on their own or cause chronic diseases such as cancer or neuropathy.
- Birth defects
- Cancer (leukemia and other cancers)
- Damage to male reproductive organs
- Kidney damage
- Liver damage
- Nerve damage
- Poor coordination in arms and legs
- Reproductive problems
- Skin allergies (itching, rashes)
- Spontaneous abortions
Drinking alcohol and smoking can make ethylene oxide side effects worse. For example, smoking can worsen respiratory side effects from chemical exposure. Too much alcohol can worsen the liver damage that ethylene oxide exposure may cause.
Which Cancers Are Associated with Ethylene Oxide Exposure?
Cancers associated with ethylene oxide exposure include chronic lymphocytic leukemia, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, lymphoid tumors and breast cancer. The strongest evidence links ethylene oxide exposure to lymphoma and leukemia.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, also known as the IARC, classified ethylene oxide as a group 1 carcinogen. This means there is enough research to show it causes cancer in humans. Studies have linked ethylene oxide to leukemia in humans and lung, blood, stomach and other types of cancer in animals.
People who work in factories, farms and other facilities that use or make ethylene oxide are at the greatest risk of exposure. Those at risk of occupational exposure should make sure they take all precautions possible when working with this toxic chemical.
How Much Ethylene Oxide Is Safe for Humans?
According to most researchers, no amount of ethylene oxide exposure is safe because it’s a human carcinogen and teratogen. People who work around the chemical should take all precautions to minimize exposure.
The Occupational Safety and Health Association, OSHA, sets the airborne ethylene exposure limit at 1 part per million averaged over an eight-hour shift, and 5 ppm averaged over a period of 15 minutes. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH, sets the recommended airborne exposure at 0.1 ppm with 5ppm not to be exceeded during a period of 10 minutes.
Ethylene oxide is a colorless gas or liquid, and people might not smell it until concentrations of 257 to 690 ppm, which could be well above safe limits. Don’t rely on smell to judge overexposure.
OSHA and NIOSH only post limits for airborne exposure. A person may be overexposed if their skin is exposed in addition to inhalation risks, even with smaller amounts.
What Should You Do If You’ve Been Exposed to Ethylene Oxide?
If you’re exposed to ethylene oxide at work, you should follow your workplace’s protocol for toxic exposures and seek medical attention. This may include procedures for eye, skin and inhalation exposures.
Small amounts of exposure may not cause problems, but overexposure can be dangerous. Some people overexposed at work or who lived near factories filed ethylene oxide lawsuits after being diagnosed with cancer.
For ethylene exposure in the eyes, immediately flush out the eyes with water for at least 30 minutes. Remove contact lenses while flushing and seek medical attention. For skin exposure, remove contaminated clothing and immediately wash the affected area with soap and water. Keep the affected area submerged in warm water and seek medical attention.
Inhalation exposure can be the most dangerous type of exposure. Remove yourself or the affected person from exposure. If the person has stopped breathing or the heart has stopped, perform CPR and seek emergency medical attention. People who inhale ethylene oxide may need to stay in the hospital for 24 to 48 hours to make sure fluid doesn’t build up in the lungs.
6 Cited Research Articles
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- International Agency for Research on Cancer. (2022, September 7). List of classifications: Ethylene Oxide. Retrieved from https://monographs.iarc.who.int/list-of-classifications
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, August 22). Ethylene Oxide. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/ethyleneoxide/default.html
- International Agency for Research on Cancer. (2022, August 12). Agents Classified by the IARC Monographs, Volumes 1–132. Retrieved from https://monographs.iarc.who.int/agents-classified-by-the-iarc/
- California State University, Fullerton. (2022, February). Reproductive Hazards and the Pregnant Worker. Retrieved from https://ehs.fullerton.edu/documents/forms/lab/Reproductive%20Hazards%20and%20the%20Pregnant%20Worker.pdf
- Vincent, M.J. et al. (2019). Ethylene Oxide: Cancer Evidence Integration and Dose–Response Implications. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6906442/
- New Jersey Department of Health. (2016). Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet: Ethylene Oxide. Retrieved from https://nj.gov/health/eoh/rtkweb/documents/fs/0882.pdf