Patient Safety vs Public Health: The Ethylene Oxide Dilemma

Ethylene oxide is a compound used to sterilize more than 20 billion devices sold in the US every year. Although this sterilization process helps keep medical devices — and patients — safe, the odorless, flammable gas may also be harming people who live near sterilization plants and who may inhale the compound, which has been linked to an elevated risk of cancer.

Regulatory agencies are currently feuding over the best way to address the dilemma: preserving patient safety vs protecting public health. Lawmakers are weighing in on the matter, which has been the source of multiple civil lawsuits filed by individuals who say they have suffered health problems as a result of exposure to ethylene oxide.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agree that use of the compound should be limited, but they are at odds about how quickly limits should be put in place, according to Axios.

A new commercial standard for ethylene oxide proposed by the EPA in April would impose stricter emission restrictions for sterilization facilities and chemical plants — a move that would cut ethylene oxide emissions by 80%, the EPA estimates.

While the FDA says it “shares concerns about the release of ethylene oxide at unsafe levels into the environment,” the agency cautions that moving too fast to cut emissions would disrupt the medical supply chain, which is already experiencing turbulence. The US has been facing the worst drug supply shortages in a decade in addition to severe medical device shortages.

Currently, other methods of sterilization cannot replace the use of ethylene oxide for many devices. Ethylene oxide is used to sterilize about half of all medical devices in the US, the FDA says. Given country’s reliance on this compound for sterilization, the FDA says it is “equally concerned about the potential impact of shortages of sterilized medical devices that would result from disruptions in commercial sterilizer facility operations.”

In 2019, Illinois temporarily closed a sterilization facility over concern regarding ethylene oxide emissions. The closure caused a shortage of a pediatric breathing tube.

Some lawmakers agree: An Interior-Environment bill would require FDA certification that any action by the EPA would not cause a medical device shortage.

The FDA has been working to identify safe alternatives to ethylene oxide for sterilizing medical supplies as well as strategies to reduce emissions of ethylene oxide by capturing the gas or by turning it into a harmless by-product. In 2019, the FDA launched a pilot program to incentivize companies to develop new sterilization technologies.

“The FDA remains focused in our commitment to encourage novel ways to sterilize medical devices while reducing adverse impacts on the environment and public health and developing solutions to avoid potential shortages of devices that the American public relies upon,” the agency said.

Sharon Worcester, MA, is an award-winning medical journalist based in Birmingham, Alabama, writing for Medscape, MDedge and other affiliate sites. She currently covers oncology, but she has also written on a variety of other medical specialties and healthcare topics. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @SW_MedReporter.

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