What Is Ethylene Oxide?

Ethylene oxide (EtO) is a flammable, colorless gas that gives off a sweet odor at room temperature. EtO's main function is to produce other chemicals. It is also often used in the sterilization of certain medical equipment, as its ability to disrupt DNA makes it very effective in this function. In small amounts, EtO is also used as a pesticide and to make antifreeze.

A single exposure to EtO can be an extreme irritant to the eyes, skin, and the respiratory tract. Exposure causes nausea and vomiting, as well as central nervous system depression.

However, when used in high concentrations and over a long time of exposure, ethylene oxide is a known human carcinogen, or cancer-causing substance. EtO is a carcinogen that causes serious injury when inhaled.

Ethylene oxide (EtO) has been shown to play a role in the following cancers:

  • Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma
  • Lymphoma
  • Leukemia
  • Breast Cancer
  • Or other forms of blood-based cancers
How is Ethylene Oxide Regulated?

In December of 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to gather information about the use of ethylene oxide in commercial sterilization and fumigation businesses for future Clean Air Act regulations. This procedure allows agencies to gather information from the public about rules an agency is contemplating.

Just a week later, the EPA published a proposed rule that would look to reduce emissions of EtO from storage tanks and other equipment at manufacturing plants. The EPA's actions came after two class-action lawsuits were filed by those residents who lived near two different facilities in West Virginia and that made EtO. These plaintiffs alleged that the manufacturers discharged ethylene oxide into the surrounding area, causing harm to the plant's neighbors.

As more people become aware of ethylene oxide and its dangerous and life-altering effects, more lawsuits will be filed all over the country. Last fall, the North Carolina Attorney General asked the EPA to work harder to finalize tougher, more rigorous standards for ethylene oxide emissions.

There are 28 states which have OSHA-approved state plans. These state plans must have standards and enforcement programs that are at least as effective as OSHA's federal standards. Some may even have different or more stringent requirements.

Even with the standards in place from OSHA for exposure, those with jobs in EtO plants and people who live close to industrial facilities that manufacture or use ethylene oxide may be exposed to ethylene oxide through emissions from leaking storage tanks and equipment, as well as improper ventilation and handling of the substance.

For example, industrial manufacturers are required to maintain and inspect specific operational features in their plants. They also must have emergency action plans and fire prevention plans to address potential exposure. If these plants don't follow the OSHA rules, exposure can become a serious problem, and these manufacturers are starting to be held accountable for their actions.

How Do People Become Exposed to Ethylene Oxide?

Most individuals who suffer from ethylene oxide exposure have either inhaled or ingested the carcinogen. However, in addition to those working in a plant that uses or manufactures EtO, the general population, including people who live even five miles away from these spots may be at risk for exposure.

In the West Virginia case, for example, the complaint alleged that residents who lived near the two Union Carbide plants had been exposed to EtO emissions over a long period of time and claim are at an increased risk of cancer due to those exposures. They allege Union Carbide allowed the “dangerous and reckless” emission of EtO which makes them seven times more at risk than the average American.

The complaint also alleges that the nearby residents have been “inhaling and consuming large amounts of Ethylene Oxide when they brush their teeth, pet their dogs, talk with their children about their day at school, and throughout their daily lives.”

The plaintiffs say that they've been unknowingly exposed to EtO “for decades.”

What Type of Injuries are Linked to Ethylene Oxide Exposure?

Many cancers have been linked to EtO exposure, but various forms of lymphoma and leukemia are the two cancers types that most frequently are seen to be associated with occupational exposure to ethylene oxide.

In addition, doctors are finding that breast cancer may also be linked to EtO exposure. The EPA says that research has found that long-term, occupational exposure to high levels of ethylene oxide increases the risk of breast cancer in women. 

And because EtO is mutagenic (that is, it can change the DNA in a cell), children may be more susceptible to the harmful effects of ethylene oxide.

The EPA says the greatest risk is for people who have lived near a facility releasing EtO into the environment. The agency explains that for a single year of exposure to ethylene oxide, the cancer risk is greater for children than for adults because ethylene oxide can damage kids' DNA.

Contact an Ethylene Oxide Exposure Attorney at Tosi Law

If you or a family member has been diagnosed with a Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, other forms of Lymphoma, Leukemia, Breast Cancer or other forms of blood-based cancers after living near a plant using ethylene oxide or working with ethylene oxide, you may be able to recover compensation for your illness.

We will investigate your case and determine the best plan of action to obtain compensation for your illness from ethylene oxide exposure.

Contact the Tosi Firm today for a free, no-obligation consultation:  888-312-2518.


Our firm believes that victims of gross negligence need a voice. We provide strong representation that is passionate about holding negligent corporations accountable for their actions.

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