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This week the microscope falls on C2H4O

Ethylene oxide – useful but dangerous?

We’re proud of the fact that Analox Sensor Technology can help you monitor a wide range of gases, from carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, to oxygen and helium. One of the more unusual gases we offer monitoring solutions for is ethylene oxide, or C2H4O as it is often known.

Many people do not know what ethylene oxide is, and we have seen a lot of Google searches where people are trying to find out what it is, how it is used, and more importantly, how it could be misused.

So… what is ethylene oxide?

It is a colourless gas with a wide range of uses in different industries. It is sometimes referred to as oxirane or EtO.

It is used in the medical industry to sterilise medical supplies – this is because unlike an autoclave (which uses heat and steam), it does not damage delicate instruments, such as those made from plastic or with electric components.

It’s also used as a fumigant; very small amounts are used to remove insects from nuts, grains and spices. C2H4O evaporates quickly, so it is unlikely that it will stay on food long enough to be eaten. Ethylene oxide is also used as a fumigant for delicate objects such as books, leather and beekeeping equipment.

The derivatives of C2H4O are just as useful. Ethylene glycol is used to make antifreeze, polyester, fiberglass and recyclable plastics. Polyethylene glycols are used in cosmetics and lubricants whilst ethylene oxide glycol ethers are used in brake fluid and paint.

As our headline states – ethylene oxide is a very useful product but it does have a downside.  Unfortunately, the downside that it is toxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic and extremely flammable.

Unlike carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide which are odourless, ethylene oxide does have a sweet smell – but the odour can only be detected at very high concentrations, at which point damage may have already been done. The smell can also be mistaken for other, less toxic chemicals such as ether.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) state that employee exposure must be limited to 1 ppm of air over an eight-hour period and 5 ppm short-term exposure limit over a 15-minute period.

With this in mind, it is very important to use a continuous gas monitor to check the levels of ethylene oxide in the atmosphere, in order to ensure the gas can be used safely.

We offer bespoke gas monitoring which can help you monitor levels of ethylene oxide – contact us today to find out more.

Author: Kate Ingham, Digital Marketing Executive


  1. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/PHS/PHS.asp?id=732&tid=133  and http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/mmg/mmg.asp?id=730&tid=133 
  2. http://www.dow.com/ethyleneoxide/applications/
  3. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-09/documents/ethylene-oxide.pdf
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