What is ethylene oxide?
Ethylene oxide is a flammable gas that dissolves readily in water. It is a man-made chemical used primarily to make ethylene glycol (a chemical used to make anti freeze and polyester). It is also used to sterilise medical equipment and supplies.
How might I be exposed to ethylene oxide?
Exposure to ethylene oxide can occur through inhalation or skin-contact.
What limits of human exposure to ethylene oxide have been set?
Australian health authorities have set a maximum air concentration of ethylene oxide (averaged over a 40-hour week) for a workplace of 1800 micrograms per cubic metre of air (1 gram = 1,000,000 micrograms).
What is known about typical background air levels?
There is very limited information in Australian and internationally about typical background air levels. What is known is that there is usually a very small amount of ethylene oxide in urban air and higher levels are found in the immediate vicinity of industries such as sterilisation facilities.
How can ethylene oxide affect my health?
Breathing in relatively high levels of ethylene oxide can cause irritation of the eyes, skin and respiratory passages and affect the nervous system (for example headaches, nausea, vomiting, memory loss, numbness) in humans. Long-term exposure to ethylene oxide at high levels encountered at some workplaces has also been associated with a small to moderate increase in the incidence of some cancers. In addition, animal studies suggest that long-term exposure can cause cancer. There is also some evidence that the risk of miscarriage is increased amongst workers in occupations with high ethylene oxide exposure.
How likely is ethylene oxide to cause cancer?
Cases of leukaemia and other cancers have been reported for workers exposed to high levels of ethylene oxide. While there is no conclusive proof that the chemical causes cancer, the World Health Organisation has classified ethylene oxide as a cancer-causing agent (carcinogen) and the US Environmental Protection Authority considers ethylene oxide a probable cancer causing substance. On balance NSW Health considers that ethylene oxide should be considered a carcinogen.
Is ethylene oxide regulated?
Under the environmental laws of NSW, the release of ethylene oxide by the Unomedical factory at Mona Vale is regulated by Pittwater Council.
Find out whether you have been exposed to ethylene oxide.
There are two kinds of tests that can determine if a person has been exposed to ethylene oxide. One test measures ethylene oxide in blood and the other test measures it in your breath. However these tests cannot be used to predict how it will affect your health and are largely used to monitor workplace exposure levels.