Ethylene Oxide FAQs

The Village of Gurnee has compiled the following list of frequently asked questions and answers regarding Ethylene Oxide (EtO).

For additional information, please visit the Ethylene Oxide Updates page. The Village continues to work with county, state and federal officials to address concerns regarding the use of the chemical ethylene oxide (EtO), at the Vantage Specialty, Inc facility and regularly posts agency and legislative updates to the EtO udates page.

Ethylene Oxide FAQ

  1. What is ethylene oxide and what are its uses?
  2. Ethylene oxide, or EtO, is a gas at room temperature. There are two key uses for ethylene oxide: 1) It is used to make other chemicals that produce many everyday products and 2) It is used to sterilize devices that can’t be sterilized using steam, such as some medical and dental equipment.
    Ethylene oxide is reacted to make ethylene glycol, which is a key ingredient in a variety of consumer household products. Ethylene oxide is an essential building block for synthetic fibers (e.g., upholstery, carpet), plastics, PVC pipe and cosmetics.
  3. When did the EPA classify ethylene oxide as a carcinogen?
  4. EPA classified ethylene oxide as a human carcinogen in December 2016. Studies of workers show that their exposures to ethylene oxide are associated with an increased risk of cancers of the white blood cells (the infection-fighting cells of the immune system). Studies also showed an increased risk of breast cancer in females.
  5. Are levels of ethylene oxide in my area high enough to cause immediate health effects?
  6. Based on available data, the US EPA does not expect ethylene oxide levels in the air around facilities to be high enough to cause immediate health effects.
    The short-term (one-hour) estimated levels in the air are well below levels that may immediately cause serious, long-lasting or irreversible noncancerous health effects.
    The mid-term estimated levels (two weeks to one year) and the long-term estimated levels in the air are also below levels that may cause noncancerous health effects.
    EPA is working with states to gather additional information from facilities that will help us better understand what the ethylene oxide levels are in the air.
  7. Are children at risk?
  8. EPA is taking steps to reduce ethylene oxide in the air to reduce risk. The greatest risk is for people who have lived near a facility releasing ethylene oxide into the air for their entire lifetime. For a single year of exposure to ethylene oxide, the cancer risk is greater for children than for adults. This is because ethylene oxide can damage DNA. For everyone, including children, risks would decrease with decreased exposure.
  9. What ambient air concentrations of ethylene oxide are acceptable/safe?
  10. Ethylene oxide is one of 187 pollutants that Congress classified as “hazardous air pollutants,” also called “air toxics.” The Clean Air Act instructs the U.S. EPA to regulate air toxics by setting limits on the amount of pollution that industrial sources can emit to the air, rather than by setting ambient standards, which are limits on the amount of a pollutant that is allowed in the outdoor air. So, the Agency does not have a “bright line,” or a level for ethylene oxide below which air quality is considered OK. 
    EPA considers any exposure, however small, to a carcinogen to create some cancer risk. EPA has typically not attempted to address estimated cancer risks caused by emissions from an individual facility if the risks to the most exposed person are below 1 in a million, or in some cases, if they are below 100 in a million.
    The concentration of ethylene oxide associated with a 1-in-a-million cancer risk, for a lifetime of continuous exposure, is 0.0002 ug/m3. The concentration of ethylene oxide associated with a 100-in-a-million cancer risk, for a lifetime of continuous exposure, is 0.02 ug/m3.
  11. Is ethylene oxide produced by the human body?
  12. Yes, our bodies produce ethylene oxide when metabolizing ethylene, which is produced naturally in the body. The percentage of ethylene converted to ethylene oxide in the body is unknown, but expected to be low
  13. What is the National Air Toxics Assessment?
    • EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment, or NATA, is a nationwide screening tool. Its purpose is to help air quality agencies determine if they need to look closer at particular areas, pollutants, or types of pollution sources to better understand risks to public health.
    • NATA estimates potential risk from long-term exposure to 180 different pollutants called “air toxics.” It estimates potential risk across the entire U.S., at the census tract level.
    • NATA is not considered a full risk assessment, and cannot tell any one person if they are going to get cancer or the cause of cancer that they did get. But it did identify ethylene oxide in some parts of the country as an issue that needs to be addressed. 
    • The 2014 National Air Toxic Assessment identified cancer risks from air toxics by census tract. Why did we not find about this until August of 2018? 
    • In August of 2018, EPA released its 2014 NATA. It is called the 2014 NATA because it is based on 2014 air emission levels.
    • For the 2014 NATA, EPA used new estimates of the cancer potency of ethylene oxide that were issued in December of 2016 and not available for the previous version of NATA (2011). This means that in the 2014 NATA, more areas show elevated risks caused by ethylene oxide than in the 2011 NATA. This does not necessarily mean there is more of this compound in the air in these places than before.
  14. Does NATA reflect up-to-date conditions?
  15. No. The current NATA released in 2018 is based on estimates of emissions in 2014. Changes in actual emissions, as well as corrections to the emissions inventory, will change our understanding of risks. For instance, emissions from Vantage were not included in the 2018 NATA due to an error in the National Emissions Inventory.
  16. What does NATA estimate is the cancer risk from exposure to air toxics?
  17. NATA is a screening tool, intended to help U.S. EPA and state, local and tribal air agencies determine if areas, pollutants or types of pollution sources need to be examined further to better understand risks to public health. NATA provides broad estimates of the risk of developing cancer and other serious health effects over census tracts across the country. It does not estimate any person’s individual risk.  Based on NATA, the U.S. EPA estimates that the average cancer risk across the U.S. population, specifically due to air toxics, to be 30 in a million.
  18. How can I find the estimated cancer risk for where I live?
  19. To see NATA results for specific areas, go to the 2014 NATA map application map. The colors in the NATA map are based on estimates of risks, which are a combination of emissions, how those emissions spread in the air, and exposure to people.
  20. What is the EPA doing to reduce ethylene oxide in my area and across the country?
  21. The US EPA is taking a two-pronged approach to finding opportunities to reduce ethylene oxide emissions:

    EPA is reviewing Clean Air Act regulations for facilities that emit ethylene oxide:

    • EPA has begun reviewing its air toxics emissions standards for miscellaneous organic chemical manufacturing facilities, some of which emit ethylene oxide.
    • EPA also plans to take a closer look at its rules for other types of facilities, beginning with its emissions standards for commercial sterilizers. 

    EPA is also getting additional information on ethylene oxide emissions:

    • EPA also is gathering additional information on industrial emissions of ethylene oxide, which may include data from testing at facilities.
    • This information will help EPA as it looks for opportunities to reduce ethylene oxide emissions as part of its regulations review.
    • It also will help us determine whether more immediate emission reduction steps are necessary in any particular locations.
  22. What are the largest sources of ethylene oxide emissions in Lake County, IL?
  23. The US EPA believes that the largest sources of ethylene oxide emissions in Lake County are Medline, a commercial sterilizer located in Waukegan, and Vantage, a chemical production facility in Gurnee. 
  24. What are the estimated emissions at Vantage?
  25. Vantage estimates that they emitted 1,547 pounds of emissions of ethylene oxide in 2017, including 701 pounds from controlled emissions stacks and 811 pounds from “fugitive” sources, such as leaking valves and other equipment. Vantage considers this estimate to be more accurate than what they previously reported to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI).
  26. Why have estimated emissions from Vantage changed?
  27. Vantage, until recently, used an unsupported emissions factor to estimate fugitive EtO emissions; this factor was based on a percentage of ethylene oxide use. Recently, Vantage began to utilize information available through the facility’s leak detection and repair (LDAR) program to develop a better estimate of fugitive emissions. They submitted an improved estimate of emissions to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) for 2017 emissions, after having already submitted a 2017 estimate. The updated estimate should appear in the TRI update in March 2019. Vantage has updated their fugitive emissions estimates back to 2010, when their LDAR program began. They have also updated their TRI estimates of point source emissions for emissions for 2012 and beyond based on the emissions control device efficiency demonstrated during a stack test conducted in late 2016.  
  28. Can Vantage reduce these emissions?
  29. Yes. Vantage has installed an additional pollution control device at its facility and has committed to performing ambient air monitoring around its facility.  Illinois EPA has proposed a permit for this facility that limits total emissions of ethylene oxide from the facility to 110 pounds per year, starting in 2020. 

    You can also check at for updated information at Illinois EPA information on Ethylene Oxide

  30. Is the EPA Planning to monitor ethylene oxide concentrations in the air near Medline and Vantage?
  31. EPA does not currently plan to monitor ethylene oxide concentrations in Lake County, although EPA is providing technical support to the Lake County Health Department, which is conducting ambient air monitoring. Vantage and Medline have also  conducted additional emissions monitoring.
  32. Is EPA Planning to model ethylene oxide concentrations in the air near facilities in Lake County?
  33. Illinois EPA required both facilities to model their post-control ethylene oxide emissions to verify that permitted controls would be protective of public health.
  34. What are the levels of EtO in the air in Lake County?
  35. Lake County Health Department is now posting EtO air concentrations from its 2019 air monitoring results: Lake County EtO Monitoring Results.  Air sampling location maps and wind roses showing wind speed, duration and direction are also included.

The Village of Gurnee remains in regular communication with state and federal officials to share the concerns of the community and to receive agency and legislative updates. Please click here to view these updates.