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Ethylene oxide is a flammable, colorless gas at room temperature. It dissolves in water and alcohol. Ethylene oxide is used primarily to produce other chemicals, including antifreeze. In smaller amounts, ethylene oxide is used as a pesticide and a sterilizing agent. It can be used to sterilize surgical and other medical equipment.
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Exposure to ethylene oxide is a health hazard. Breathing in high concentrations of ethylene oxide gas can cause headache, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing. Long-term exposure to ethylene oxide is associated with increased risk of cancers, including blood cancers, lymphoma, myeloma and leukemia. It also increases the risk of breast cancer in females.
Ethylene oxide is present in the environment and is created by various sources, including plants that use the chemical to sterilize materials, including surgical equipment used in hospitals. The Environmental Protection Agency recently identified several plants and factories that release ethylene oxide into the air. Sterilization Services of Tennessee, a plant located at 2396 Florida Street in southwest Memphis is on the list of facilities identified as a source of ethylene oxide. The chemical is used to sterilize devices that can’t be sterilized using steam or radiation.
Ethylene oxide has been used for sterilization for decades. The Sterilization Services of Tennessee facility is in compliance with the EPA’s current rules and regulations regarding release of ethylene oxide, but will not meet the EPA’s new and more stringent standards designed to reduce fugitive emissions of ethylene oxide. Fugitive emissions are unintentional releases of the gas during plant operations. Sterilization Services of Tennessee is planning to make changes to its facility and processes to reduce those emissions. The company is also considering moving the operation to an industrial area within Shelby County (4140 B F Goodrich Boulevard) that has fewer nearby residents.
Most commonly ethylene oxide gas is breathed in with air through the lungs. Ethylene oxide is heavier than air. Short-term inhalation exposure to high amounts of ethylene oxide can cause headache, dizziness, fatigue, confusion, and unconsciousness.
Ethylene oxide is eliminated from the body fairly quickly – with levels dropping by about 50% every 42 minutes. At that rate, almost 90% of ethylene oxide is eliminated from the body in two hours.
There are two kinds of medical tests that can determine if you have been recently exposed to ethylene oxide. One test measures ethylene oxide in blood and the other test measures it in your breath. However, these tests are not intended for use on individuals that may have been exposed to very low levels of ethylene oxide (as these tests are not sensitive enough to detect it). Tests cannot be used to predict how low-level exposure will affect a person’s health. And because special equipment is needed, these tests are not usually done in the doctor's office.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program classify ethylene oxide as carcinogenic to humans, which means it is a chemical that can cause cancer. According to the EPA, exposure to ethylene oxide by inhalation increases the risk of leukemia and other blood cancers, lymphoma, and breast cancer in females. EPA considers elevated cancer risk to be greater than 100 in a million in the area around the Sterilization Services of Tennessee facility.
Currently it is not known if the residents around the facility have a higher incidence of cancer than other county residents. Shelby County Health Department has requested information from the National Cancer Registry to determine if cancer rates are elevated in the area surrounding the Sterilization Services of Tennessee facility and will share that information with the community.
Register to attend the planned community meeting on September 8, 2022 to learn more about ethylene oxide and your potential exposure. Register here: https://www.epa.gov/hazardous-air-pollutants-ethylene-oxide/forms/memphis-tennessee-sterilization-services-tennessee#form. Also, residents may discuss possible elevated cancer risk and appropriate cancer screening tests with their health care providers.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, potential health effects of ethylene oxide exposure depend on amount inhaled and how long the person was exposed. Long-term exposure to ethylene oxide can cause irritation of the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and lungs, and damage to the brain and nervous system. Some studies of workers ethylene oxide facilities indicate that exposure to high levels of ethylene oxide can cause an increased rate of miscarriages. Because children’s bodies are growing, they are expected to be more susceptible to the toxic effects of ethylene oxide.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration requires employers who use ethylene oxide to limit workers exposure to the gas by providing personal protective equipment and personal air monitoring as well as information and training programs for employees who work with the chemical. Employers are also required to do exposure monitoring to determine the airborne concentrations of ethylene oxide that workers are exposed to. Questions about worker exposure should be directed to OSHA and TOSHA.