What molecule am I?
Ethylene oxide is the smallest of the oxirane family of molecules. It is a sweet-smelling, colorless gas that has many uses; but its high reactivity presents many hazards.
Back in 1859, A. Wurtz treated ethylene chlorohydrin with potassium hydroxide to make ethylene oxide and potassium chloride. In 1914, BASF built the first ethylene oxide plant, which used the chlorohydrin method, but with calcium hydroxide instead of KOH. This process was eventually superseded by the direct oxidation of ethylene, which is used exclusively today.
The uses of ethylene oxide are numerous. By far, its primary use is as a raw material for the industrial manufacture of ethylene glycol and its oligomers, glycol ethers, and ethanolamines. Minor, but important, direct applications include a fumigant for foods and textiles; an agricultural fungicide and insecticide; and a sterilant for medical equipment.
As shown in the hazard information table, many of ethylene oxide’s uses also make it extremely dangerous. Its carcinogenicity is of special concern. The US Environmental Protection Agency is under a court order to decide by March 13, 2020, whether to tighten the 2006 standards set for air pollution by ethylene oxide and other organic chemicals.
There is broad disagreement between environmental and industrial advocates as to the safe concentration of ethylene oxide in air. Proposals range from 0.1 ppt to 4 ppb—a factor of 40,000. Both sides are beginning to pressure EPA to see things their way.
Learn more about this molecule from CAS, the most authoritative and comprehensive source for chemical information.