What is eth­yl­ene ox­ide?

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAND - By Michael Hawthorne

Eth­yl­ene ox­ide is a widely used chem­i­cal made in the U.S. by some of the in­dus­try’s global gi­ants, in­clud­ing Dow Chem­i­cal, Hunts­man, Shell and Union Car­bide. Its main use is in the re­fin­ing of other chem­i­cals, in­clud­ing eth­yl­ene gly­col, the main in­gre­di­ent in au­to­mo­bile an­tifreeze.

A small but sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of eth­yl­ene ox­ide is used by hospi­tals and cor­po­ra­tions to ster­il­ize med­i­cal in­stru­ments. It also is used to fu­mi­gate phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal drugs and food, in par­tic­u­lar spices.

Ralph Landau, a chem­i­cal en­gi­neer who pi­o­neered a widely used process for mak­ing eth­yl­ene ox­ide, later de­vel­oped a new method to make eth­yl­ene gly­col that didn’t rely on its more trou­ble­some chem­i­cal cousin. A com­pany he formed to man­u­fac­ture prod­ucts with­out eth­yl­ene ox­ide foundered in the early 1980s.

The dan­gers of eth­yl­ene ox­ide have been known since at least the late 1970s. In 1985, the Na­tional Tox­i­col­ogy Pro­gram, an arm of the U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, de­clared that the chem­i­cal is “rea­son­ably an­tic­i­pated to be a hu­man car­cino­gen.” The gov­ern­ment sci­en­tific agency clas­si­fied eth­yl­ene ox­ide as a “known hu­man car­cino­gen” in 2000.

One of the chief stud­ies of its cancer risks in­volved more than 18,000 work­ers at ster­il­iza­tion plants. Re­searchers for the Na­tional In­sti­tute for Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health found that the work­ers suf­fered wor­ri­some rates of breast cancer and lym­phomas. The study pro­vided the foun­da­tion of a draft risk as­sess­ment is­sued in 2006 by the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, a doc­u­ment that wasn’t for­mally re­leased un­til De­cem­ber 2016.

Eth­yl­ene ox­ide pro­duc­ers and users con­tend the chem­i­cal is vi­tally needed to pre­vent hospi­tal in­fec­tions. Other ster­il­iza­tion meth­ods used by Steri­gen­ics and its cor­po­rate com­peti­tors in­clude steam, gamma rays and hy­dro­gen per­ox­ide gas, which pre­sent fewer en­vi­ron­men­tal draw­backs and are gen­er­ally safer.

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