What Is Ethylene Oxide and What Are Its Effects?

Ethylene oxide is normally detected in products of plant origin, such as sesame and wheat. Why is it so dangerous?
What Is Ethylene Oxide and What Are Its Effects?
Saúl Sánchez

Written and verified by el nutricionista Saúl Sánchez.

Last update: 16 December, 2022

Ethylene oxide is a colorless, flammable, sweet-smelling gas that is used to make antifreeze and has fumigating or sterilizing effects.

However, it can increase the risk of cancer if there’s continued exposure to it. Because of this, it’s classified as dangerous and its inhalation should be avoided. The risk occurs mainly in the cases of people who live near industrial facilities.

Before we begin, we should point out that there are several types of volatile compounds or gases that can cause health problems when inhaled or when consumed through food.

These increase the production of free radicals in our bodies, a situation that causes a higher rate of oxidation and inflammation. From here, DNA mutations become more frequent.

Ethylene oxide in food

The presence of ethylene oxide has been detected in several types of food offered to the public, such as sesame seeds.

When food safety agencies became aware of the problem, they quickly ordered these items to be withdrawn from the market, as their ingestion could lead to serious problems for the consumer’s health. This gas has been associated with an increased risk of developing cancer, as indicated by a study published in the journal Dose Response.

The main problem with this substance is that it damages DNA and cell replication. It can also cause mitochondrial dysfunction, which is related to an increased incidence of chronic and complex pathologies.

For this reason, the use of the compound in food or agriculture is totally prohibited, although traces of it are still found periodically in some products.

It was normally used as a sterilant to avoid contamination with microorganisms, as it’s lethal to most of them. However, it’s excessively dangerous and leaves a series of remains that can be harmful to any animal and species.

It also accumulates easily in the body, so the effects will be progressive and will depend on continued exposure to it.

Effects of continued use

Ethylene oxide and cancer.
One of the main reasons why it’s important to avoid contact with ethylene oxide is because of the risk of developing cancer.

As a general rule, it’s speculated that the increased risk of cancer due to exposure to ethylene oxide increases exponentially after 10 years of continuous use and inhalation of it.

Most frequently, it can lead to leukemia and lymphoma. It could resemble the effects of tobacco in the body, at a cellular level, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research International.

It’s important to note that there’s no safe dose when exposing yourself to this substance. Therefore, it’s important that there aren’t any traces in your food. In this sense, consumer protection agencies are very strict. When any trace of the compound is detected, the batch or food is withdrawn from the market, to avoid risks.

Even so, it’s very possible that it will be present, above all, in food that comes from underdeveloped countries. Here the control mechanisms are much lower and food hygiene isn’t given the importance it should be.

Contaminations are much more frequent there. In fact, it isn’t possible to import food into the European Union from just anywhere in the world because of this problem.

Where can you find ethylene oxide?

Ethylene oxide is normally detected in products of plant origin, such as sesame and wheat. The substance would be used to kill populations of microorganisms or pests that can damage the plant, conditioning the subsequent harvest.

In some Asian countries, its use isn’t so restricted, but in Europe and the US, its use is completely prohibited if it’s related to the food industry.

However, it isn’t the first time that food contamination with prohibited substances has been found. It’s relatively common for processed batches to be withdrawn from the market because they contain traces of compounds that are harmful to human health.

It’s always advisable to include a greater amount of fresh food in the diet. It’s less likely that these have harmful substances that can harm human health.

There has been a lot of debate about the safety of pesticides used in agriculture, but many of them disappear from the surface of the vegetables when they’re washed before cooking.

Compounds that act as disruptors

Continuing with this topic of pesticides and toxic elements used in agricultural processes, it should be noted that you can find a wide list of what are called endocrine disruptors.

Basically, these are substances that, when ingested, produce alterations in the profile or hormonal production. They generally affect sex hormones, according to research published in Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology.

The problem with these compounds is that they also bioaccumulate in the body, and can cause reproductive disorders in the medium term. It’s really difficult to avoid exposure to them, as they’re present in many items we consume regularly.

They aren’t only present in food, but also in aerosols, toothpaste, and in plastic bottles. They may not cause a direct carcinogenic effect like ethylene oxide, but they could indirectly affect this risk.

After all, all toxins tend to alter the redox balance (of biochemical reactions of oxidation and reduction) and the body’s inflammatory balance.

This results in increased production of free radicals and increased risk of DNA mutations. To alleviate this mechanism, a high consumption of antioxidant substances is required, such as the phytochemicals present in vegetables. These have been shown to help prevent aging and the development of many chronic and complex pathologies.

To prevent the consumption of these disruptors, it could be a good strategy to choose organic foods. The use of pesticides and other chemicals during their production is prohibited, which ensures fewer health risks.

However, the prices are much higher and isn’t affordable for all budgets.

Possible water contamination

Ethylene oxide and its presence in water.
It’s important to ensure that the water consumed has gone through a proper filtering process.

It’s important to note that both ethylene oxide and many other toxins can enter drinking water. For this reason, access to drinking sources that follow rigorous control processes is crucial.

If not, the risk of developing chronic pathologies in the medium term or poisoning would skyrocket. In this sense, the purification of water has been one of the most important hygienic advances in recent history.

Even so, it’s true that the consumption of liquids in glass bottles should be prioritized over plastic ones. Thus, exposure to a large number of the aforementioned disruptors is avoided, avoiding alterations in cell replication and mitochondrial function.

Along the same lines, it’s key to include a high presence of vegetables in your diet, to neutralize the formation of free radicals and their subsequent accumulation in the body’s tissues.

In the case of purchasing bottled water, those containing strong mineralization should be avoided and should be stored in a cool, dry place, always out of sunlight. Exposure to heat means that more compounds such as microplastics will be released into the liquid, which will later pass into the human body.

Ethylene oxide, a major public health problem

Ethylene oxide can be present in various types of foods of plant origin and is very dangerous for the human body, significantly increasing the risk of developing cancer in the medium term.

There’s no safe dose and it’s also harmful when inhaled – it’s a gas with a sweet smell and is extremely flammable. It’s used in industry, but its use is restricted and requires protection measures.

Finally, it must be taken into account that the gases inhaled in the centers of large cities can also pose a serious problem for the human body.

Pollution and contamination can negatively affect lung function in a similar way to tobacco smoke. In this sense, it’s necessary to ensure a regular consumption of antioxidant compounds to try to neutralize the formation of reactive oxygen species and thus alleviate the damage to a certain extent.

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