Ethylene oxide has been making the news recently. Here are the top 5 facts to know to get up to speed:

  1. Use Case

    • Ethylene oxide is commonly used as a fumigant in food in many parts of the world; however, it is banned in Europe. It is also widely used in the chemical industry to sterilize materials and instruments used in surgery and medical devices.
    • Ethylene oxide is one of the most widely produced chemicals worldwide; however, only 0.05% of the global EO production is used for fumigation purposes including the sterilization of medical equipment.
    • It shows strong antibacterial properties, by diffusing quite easily and by interacting with the DNA and the proteins. For this reason, it is widely used as a fumigant in storage facilities and also on foodstuffs in countries like India, as it is very effective in disinfestation or disinfection.
  2. Reaction with Food

    • Ethylene oxide rapidly disappears from food through evaporation or chemical reactions.
    • If Ethylene oxide comes in contact with food products, it can undergo various reactions within the product. Consumers could be exposed through the reaction of ethylene oxide with the product. One of these reactions could produce 2-chloroethanol, which serves as a marker for use of ethylene oxide.
  3.  Classification

    • Ethylene Oxide is a category 1B mutagen, carcinogen, and toxic compound for reproduction.
  4. Restrictions

    • Europe: Ethylene oxide for food fumigation was phased out in 1991. Many countries have imposed additional restrictions on its use due to toxicological concerns. Reg. (EC) 396/2005 defines the limit as the “sum of ethylene oxide and 2-chloro-ethanol expressed in ethylene oxide” with a limit in sesame seeds of 0.05 mg/kg. Reg (EU) 231/2012 states ethylene oxide cannot be used to sterilize food additives and sets limits for some additives involving it in the production process.
    • USA & Canada: Ethylene oxide is starting to be considered as a pesticide in some states. Limits have been set in spices, dried herbs, vegetables, and oily seeds (including sesame seeds).
    • Other countries such as Australia, Japan, Korea, and Thailand have not set explicit limits yet.
  5.  Verification

    • Analytical testing of ethylene oxide and 2-chloroethanol is now an accredited offering of Mérieux NutriSciences through GC-MS/MS testing.


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