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Ethylene oxide

What is ethylene oxide?

Ethylene oxide is a man-made chemical that exists as a gas above 10°C. It does not persist for long in the environment due to its instability.

What is ethylene oxide used for?

The primary use of ethylene oxide is as an intermediate ingredient in the further manufacture of industrial products (e.g. polyester). Ethylene oxide also has applications as a sterilising agent in healthcare and as a fumigant pesticide in agriculture.

Historically, ethylene oxide was used as a fumigant pesticide to treat foodstuffs sold in Australia. Because of its volatility, ethylene oxide residue in food post-treatment can fully dissipate with time. However, the use of ethylene oxide on foods is being phased out worldwide, due to health concerns associated with residues that may remain in foods until they are consumed. Safer alternatives, such as food irradiation or steam treatment, are increasingly being used to replace fumigation with ethylene oxide.

Ethylene oxide has not been an accepted treatment for any foods that are sold in Australia since 2003.

Is ethylene oxide safe?

Health effects associated with ethylene oxide exposure are highly unlikely outside of specialised workplaces that use ethylene oxide gas. Prior to 2003, ethylene oxide was a permitted pesticide treatment for herbs and spices sold in Australia, with residue limits (maximum of 20 mg/kg) defined in the Food Standards Code.

Concerns about the use of ethylene oxide on foods developed when evidence indicated that continual exposure over a long period may increase the incidence of cancer. It was decided that the potential risk to Australian consumers arising from repeated exposure to ethylene oxide residues that might remain in food warranted its phasing out. In 2003 the standard that allowed the use of ethylene oxide as a treatment for foods sold in Australia was removed. Ethylene oxide may still be used to treat food in other countries.

Page last updated 6 December 2023