Ethylene oxide

Woman in mask, gown, and gloves loads medical equipment into tray to be sterilized.Ethylene oxide (EtO) is a toxic gas that is useful for sterilizing equipment and products that cannot be sterilized by steam or extreme heat, such as medical components, food products (herbs and spices), and cosmetics.

EtO is also used in manufacturing a range of common products, including antifreeze, textiles, plastics, detergents and adhesives. It also shows up as a byproduct or derivative in some manufactured goods.


The U.S. EPA classifies EtO as a known carcinogen, and federal emission standards restrict emissions from some sources. But recent research has shown the chemical is potentially more harmful than previously thought. EPA conducted a nationwide review of EtO emissions and identified several areas of the country where facilities using EtO are of potential concern. Among other actions and investigations, EPA is reviewing the existing regulations on EtO. Read more about EtO, the health risks, and what actions are being taken on EPA’s ethylene oxide webpage.

The FDA provides further details on the ethylene oxide sterilization process and actions being taken to advance sterilization of medical devices. An Innovation Challenge was established to encourage development of new or alternative sterilization methods and techniques and for reducing EtO emissions, while still providing robust patient safeguards.

In Minnesota

Minnesota is not a significant emitter of EtO compared to other states. According to the most recent emissions data reported to the MPCA, the state has 22 permitted facilities whose EtO emissions are controlled by permit, along with numerous other smaller facilities that don’t have permits. But even though we’re a low-emitting state, we can do more to reduce emissions from all sources.

Taking action: Grants and loans

MPCA sought applications from small businesses and organizations for grant funding to reduce air emissions from EtO sterilization, eliminate EtO sterilization, or reduce the use of products that contain EtO and/or EtO derivatives. The grant round is closed; applications were due August 28, 2020.

In addition to the grant funding, zero-percent interest Small Business Environmental Improvement Loans are available to small businesses to help switch to an alternative product or for control equipment that will reduce EtO air emissions.