Ethylene oxide is an extremely useful gaseous sterilizing agent that destroys all microbes, including endospores and viruses, by reacting with proteins. As a gas, it penetrates well into fabrics, equipment, and implantable devices such as pacemakers and artificial hips. It is particularly useful for sterilizing heat- or moisture-sensitive items such as electrical equipment, pillows, and mattresses. Many disposable laboratory items, including plastic Petri dishes and pipets, are also sterilized with ethylene oxide.
A special chamber that resembles an autoclave is used to sterilize items with ethylene oxide. This allows the careful control of factors such as temperature, relative humidity, and ethylene oxide concentration, all of which influence the effectiveness of the gas. Because ethylene oxide is explosive, it is generally mixed with a non-flammable gas such as carbon dioxide. Under these carefully controlled conditions, objects can be sterilized in 3 to 12 hours. The toxic ethylene oxide must then be eliminated from the treated material using heated forced air for 8 to 12 hours. Absorbed ethylene oxide must be allowed to dissipate because of its irritating effects on tissues and its persistent antimicrobial effect, which, in the case of Petri dishes and other items used for culturing bacteria, is undesirable.
Ethylene oxide is mutagenic and therefore potentially carcinogenic. Indeed, studies have shown a slightly increased risk of malignancies in long-term users of the gas. Less toxic gaseous alternatives are currently being explored.
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